What it’s Like to be Kim Jong-un

Katie Evanko-Douglas
5 min readMay 23, 2019


Too often, international negotiations are treated like the zero-sum game they aren’t, with players trying to rush a premature outcome in order to feel powerful. Lack of empathy and an unwillingness to put in the hard work of building genuine trust create the largest roadblocks.

Because empathy is such a critical factor in negotiations, this article and the book it summarizes take a radically different viewpoint than Westerners are used to; They describe the situation from the point of view of the Kim Regime and give the recommendations I would actually provide if North Korea was my client.

North Korea is a client I would be happy to work with because my personal mission is to maximize the wellbeing of every living and future human. I am therefore happy to take on any client whose end goal raises the wellbeing of humans and are unwilling to take on any client whose end goal lowers the wellbeing of humans.

Helping the Kim Regime achieve a deal that obliviates nuclear war as a possible outcome decreases the chances of death and suffering for millions of humans. Helping the Kim Regime create a deal that maintains stability as North Korea develops rapidly increases the wellbeing of millions of humans living in North Korea.

Before diving into specific recommendations, I’d like to address some common Western criticisms of the Kim Regime, the negotiation process, and myself for taking a “devil’s advocate” approach to the subject matter. As is natural for any group of humans perceiving another group of humans through the lens of “the enemy,” many in the West view Kim Jong-un and his Regime not as fully formed human beings in difficult and terrible circumstances, but as an evil caricature of a dictator who enjoys, on a personal level, starving and tormenting other humans.

They fear “legitimizing” the Kim Regime by treating them as the actual leaders of North Korea and do not think progress should be allowed to occur until their definition of human rights is met. They don’t realize how carefully North Korea must tread on these issues.

There are only three possible outcomes:

  1. Option one is a nuclear war, wherein millions are killed in Korea and America. Nobody wants this option but it’s the likely option if nothing is done and tensions continue to rise.
  2. Option two is a failed state scenario in which the Kim Regime loses control and the North Korean state collapses. In this case, millions of refugees flow to South Korea, China, Russia, and possibly even Japan while hardliners in North Korea vie for power in far more brutal ways than the Kim Regime must currently employ to stay in power. This is what happens when you refuse to “legitimize” the Kim Regime.
  3. Option three is the completion of successful nuclear negotiations. In this scenario, we take the steps necessary to make a mutually beneficial deal. North Korea is able to de-nuclearize then develop quickly a la China and Vietnam.

Kim Jong-un’s biggest fear is for North Korea to end up like Iraq or Libya. When American intelligence says the Kim Regime views nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival, they are correct.

Imagine being in Kim Jong-un’s shoes for a moment. You’re born into this very difficult job. You’re given a Western education in Switzerland during college and gain a bird’s eye view that none of this normal and your people do suffer. You’re forced to take over when you’re in your late 20’s. You can’t walk away from this responsibility or your people will suffer from option #2. And you have to be brutal enough to solidify your power and avoid a coup or else you, your wife, and your children will be murdered and your country will descend into chaos. You have to run this country facing brutal sanctions and a starving populace with the sword of Damocles of nuclear war ever-present.

It is absolute hell. You worry about your people and you worry about your children. If you were to suddenly die from stress, who knows what would happen to them. They are not old enough to succeed in this brutal system. You don’t want them to ever have to take over as stressful a situation as was forced upon you. You want to be able to hand them a stable and prosperous country they can be safe in, but your hands are tied.

“I’m a father and a husband. And I have children. And I don’t want my children to carry the nuclear weapon on their back their whole life.” — Kim Jong-un

And then you have people in the West criticizing the human rights violations of your every move when you’re just trying to maximize the number of people who don’t die under your watch. E.g. people in the West criticizing you for killing someone for giving extra rations as evidence you like to starve people when really it’s, sanctions are choking your food supply and if you don’t ration now, even more people will perish later. The only motivator stronger than starvation is the threat of immediate death. And the U.S. is refusing to take a step-by-step approach that would allow you to build confidence by feeding your people.

And then people in the West criticize you for killing upper-class people and taking away their wealth if they don’t support nuclear negotiations with the implication it shows you’re not really serious about negotiations. Really, it’s the only way you can be serious. North Korea is a kill or be killed environment. The alternative is to push forward with negotiations and risk getting killed in a coup and descending into option #2.

Kim Jong-un has few good options and a whole lot of risks. Every decision is based solely on how to make sure the smallest number of people possible get killed while protecting himself and his family.

Imagine being in this stressful situation with a finite amount of social capital, burning through most of it to get to the Hanoi summit, and then walking away with little to reinvest to make more. You can’t do complete denuclearization at this time because it could cause option #2.

You and Moon Jae-in have staked your entire careers on this and now you feel you’ve run out of runway. America is demanding an agreement that costs more social capital than you have or nothing at all.

What do you do?

One possible path is detailed in the book Nukes to Negotiations, available on Amazon right now.



Katie Evanko-Douglas

Trying to help develop safe, inclusive AI by bringing 21st century tech to social science. Nerd for: IR, development/infrastructure and intersectional feminism.