Kim Jong Un and the Bomb – A Review

As the North Korean state made remarkable leaps to its nuclear and missile capabilities under the leadership of Kim Jong-un, Ankit Panda, a journalist and editor at The Diplomat, based in New York, was following the developments in real time. Working independently and at times in concert with think tanks like the Middlebury Institute in Monterrey, Panda documented North Korea’s technological progress and published scoops on alleged sites of nuclear enrichment at Kangson, outside of Pyongyang (108). His reporting scrutinized North Korean state photographs and television segments frame-by-frame, but it also relied on old-fashioned leaks from US intelligence agencies, à la David Sanger’s work for the New York Times. The endnotes are studded with references to interviews with unnamed US intelligence officials (“who were not authorized to share what they did” [x]), and the odd cryptic annotation that implies that the author had access to or was appraised of on-the-ground espionage materials (277, 345).


The text leaves several loops open, not least of which is whether the cumulative $67 billion the US has spent on a specific type of missile defence (294) has had any purpose at all. Budgetary pressures on Kim Jong-un, however, get short shrift in the book; while kit rather than cost is Panda’s main object, it might have been useful to see something like a ballpark figure (annual or cumulative) on the cost of these programs to or within the North Korean economy. Other areas needing further study include Kim Jong-un’s cohort of nuclear scientists, including their links to Chinese training, information, and methods, and to what extent Kim has wooed and supplied this group even while spurring them on to work overdrive. (Leiden University’s Koen de Ceuster and his studies of North Korean artists might prove a useful model here.) North Korea’s own perceptions of US assessments might also bear consideration—a topic covered in part by the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos in his September 2017 junket to Pyongyang. Finally, the question of the relationship between an extended nuclear deterrent and the possibility of what Panda calls “greater conventional adventurism” (92) might be teased out further. On the whole, this book merits reading in detail by North Korea analysts and defence professionals, and it serves as an excellent reference text for those with casual to obsessive interests in North Korea generally.

Citation: Adam Cathcart, Review of Kim Jong Un and the Bomb: Survival and Deterrence in North Korea, Ankit Panda, Pacific Affairs, Vol. 94, No. 4 (December).

Full text available (no paywall) here.

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