When Kim Jong-un took power in December 2011, many experts saw his ascent as an opportunity for the West to transform the last bastion of hard-line communism, believing that the untested leader would shy away from confrontation with the U.S. and even South Korea.
Instead, North Korea’s leader — believed to be about 30 years old — has “proved to be more ruthless, aggressive and tactically skilled than anyone expected,” Peter Sanger of The New York Times reports.
Here are a few things North Korea’s supreme leader has done in the past 18 months to surprise and unnerve the U.S.:
1. The U.S. expected Kim to ease up on obtaining a nuke, but North Korea conducted a third nuclear test in February 2013. Kim is expanding the production of highly enriched uranium to get a more plentiful supply of nuclear fuel, and recently threatened to conduct “a new form of nuclear test.”
2. When the world thought that any North Korean rocket launch would be a farce, the North launched a rocket 1,600 miles in December 2012. The event is suspected of being a test for long-range ballistic missiles, which Kim wants to use as a threat to the U.S. and its allies.
3. In April 2013, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency said it believed the North had learned how to make a “low-reliability” nuclear weapon small enough to be delivered by a ballistic missile. If that happened in tandem with the long-range ballistic missiles, then North Korea’s projected power would go through the roof.
4. From today’s New York Times: “Defense officials say they now have less warning time on missile launches than they had two or three years ago because Mr. Kim has put his resources into mobile launchers that are regularly moved from tunnel to tunnel, making them harder for American satellites to track.”
5. President Obama had been told that Kim’s uncle Jang Song-thaek would keep Kim in check, but Kim executed Jang, who was seen as an experienced diplomat with close ties to China.
6. While many waited for the North’s economy to collapse under sanctions, Kim has developed an underground illicit economy. The North is now a global hub for high-quality meth, which is an increasing problem for both East Asia and America.
7. China, the world’s second-largest economy, has Kim’s back: Beijing recently rejected a damning report about horrific human-rights abuses by Kim’s regime, provides it with military hardware, and reportedly holds a trust fund for the young leader in Chinese banks.
Significantly, Kim has ample opportunity to continue down this path since the U.S. is largely in the dark when it comes to collecting intelligence on North Korea. That’s bad since the North could become a failed nuclear state.