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A Psychological Profile Of North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un


Experts used to describe Kim Jong Un as the reclusive leader of North Korea. Well, in the last couple of months, he has become a lot less reclusive, meeting with leaders of South Korea, China and now the United States. That provides a lot of helpful information to people whose job it is to build psychological profiles of world leaders.

Ken Dekleva is a former State Department psychiatrist who has worked on profiles of many heads of state. Welcome to the program.

KEN DEKLEVA: Thank you very much. It's a privilege to be here.

SHAPIRO: When you're writing a profile of a person who has not been in the public eye very much, what do you get your information from? How do you actually do this?

DEKLEVA: The work I do relies on open sources, so...

SHAPIRO: So you're not reading classified documents.

DEKLEVA: Yeah. You're studying their speeches, their writings. You're looking at media reports. You're studying videos. You're looking at anything that's written about people who have interacted with the leader that you're interested in.

In the case of Kim Jong Un, there was very little data before earlier this year in that regard. Certainly, you had folks who had met him, like Dennis Rodman, but you're really relying on media reports that come out of the North Korean official media and interpretations from the South Korean media.

SHAPIRO: If you're relying a lot on state media, is it difficult to know whether you're getting accurate information?

DEKLEVA: Yeah, of course. You have to take the information with a grain of salt, trying to read between the lines to develop some understanding of the leader's political behavior.

SHAPIRO: So if somebody at a dinner party said to you, so what's Kim Jong Un really like, what would you say?

DEKLEVA: I would say he's smart, that he's a very, very savvy diplomat, a leader with a sense of gravitas. He wants to be a player on the world stage.

SHAPIRO: You're really painting a very different picture of this man than the madman theory with nuclear weapons that people have been talking about for years.

DEKLEVA: Yes, I am. And I think the madman theory was wrong. There was a sense of him wanting to establish his power base.

And I think the other thing that was a mistake is many people tended to see Kim Jong Un as not being well-prepared for the job when he took power. But I think, in hindsight, it's pretty clear that Kim Jong Un was already being groomed as early as 2008 and 2009, following Kim Jong Il's stroke and decline in his health.

SHAPIRO: What do you see when you look at Kim Jong Un relative to President Trump?

DEKLEVA: I think it's going to be a fascinating summit. And I think what we have is an unusual concatenation of personalities and events of new leaders in that part of the world. Xi Jinping's been in power now for five years, Kim Jong Un for six, and we have newly elected leaders, President Moon of South Korea, President Trump.

And I think it's sort of like a perfect storm of opportunities for these people to do something different where the events in the North Korean - in the Korean peninsula have really been stuck for some time. It's a rare historic opportunity, and I think Kim Jong Un is seizing on that.

SHAPIRO: An opportunity that also comes with a lot of risk and potential pitfalls, right?

DEKLEVA: Yeah. The risk is that if things - I think things will go well. I'm an optimist, and I'm happy to say that on your show. And I've talked to other experts, such as Ambassador Joseph DeTrani and folks like that who - I think there's a guarded sense of optimism that something's different here, and that's why there's so much excitement about the summit.

That being said, as President Trump has said, it's the beginning of a process, but a very important process. And Kim has an advantage that his national security team have been doing this type of diplomacy for decades, whereas President Trump's team - they're superb, but they've come together just in the last few months. It's sort of like a football team that's won championships in the NFL going against the NFL all-stars. President Trump has all-stars, but they've only been cobbled together in the last several months with the changes in personnel.

SHAPIRO: Ken Dekleva is a former State Department psychiatrist speaking with us now as a private citizen. Thank you for joining us.

DEKLEVA: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.