Victor Cha: Why Kim Jong-un Faces the “Dictator’s Dilemma”


January 14, 2014

Victor Cha is a professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University and served as director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush. Cha told FRONTLINE that Kim Jong-un faces what he calls the “dictator’s dilemma.” The regime must open up to survive, he said, “but the process of opening up could lead to the collapse of the regime.”

This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Sept. 11, 2013.

Have hopes about Kim Jong-un materialized into anything positive?

Unfortunately they haven’t. I think there were some that speculated that with the new young leadership, with some education outside North Korea, that he would come in with new ideas; that there was not just he, but a younger generation, princelings if you will, sons of generals, obviously sons of Kim Jong-il, but other party officials, all of whom would have a different attitude about the country and the need to bring it into the 21st century.

So lots of theories were spun out about this, but it clearly hasn’t happened. He’s fallen right into the rigid mold of past leaders. Yes, there was stylistic changes, but in substance it’s pretty much the same.

What kind of stylistic changes have there been?

His father, Kim Jong-il, was very stoic in public, actually avoided the limelight, was never seen in public with a wife, even though he had several.

But his younger son seems to take to the limelight. He likes it there in public. He likes to be seen in photographs smiling and patting the backs of workers when he does on-the-spot guidance inspections.

He’s been seen publicly with his wife displaying, in North Korean terms, a degree of emotion and holding hands and things. These are all things that we don’t normally see from a North Korean leadership, at least the previous one.

And then of course the interest in Western theater and musical productions, basketball — these sorts of things were things that we never really saw from a leadership before, so it gave rise to this hope that there would be real change behind these stylistic alterations. But we’ve had the alterations, but we haven’t had the change.

And some people say that he’s trying to mimic his grandfather.

I think there is some of that. Certainly he’s made to look like his grandfather. I believe that is part of a general effort to bring a vision to the country that reminds them of Kim Il-sung, the first leader of North Korea, because that period was a very good period of North Korea.

Unfortunately, it had no other empirical reference point besides that period when they think about a good time in the country. So I think it’s sort of back to the future, both in the way they try to make this fellow look and then also in terms of some of the ideology that is trying to bring back some of the mass mobilization and the very orthodox, self-reliance ideology of his grandfather.

What do you mean by mass mobilization?

During the Kim Il-sung era, there was an effort on focusing on complete self-reliance and complete loyalty to the state. I think during Kim Jong-il, they experimented with reform a little bit in a period that coincided with the South Korean Sunshine Policy of engagement, and that didn’t work out very well.

So I think with Kim Jong-un, this new fellow, they’re looking for a brighter future, but the only future that is bright that they can refer to is this period in their past, so they seem to be replicating some of that.

It’s Juche ideology is what it’s called, this sort of fundamentalist version of Juche ideology where that focuses on, again, strict loyalty to the state, no experimentation with the outside world and mass mobilization, meaning mass mobilization of the population, whether it’s worship of the leader, or in terms of economics it’s a form of political control that is camouflaged as an economic strategy. It was successful during Kim Il-sung, but it’s not successful today.

In terms of the hopes that the international community had, I suppose they were dashed pretty quickly. What do you think the motivation was for Kim Jong-un to come out with all that bellicose rhetoric [in 2012]?

I think that the expectations were dashed because the Obama administration, at the beginning of its term, were clearly very willing to engage with North Korea, and the North Koreans, with their missile test in April and their nuclear test in May of 2009, offered the definitive slapping away of Obama’s hand.

In the past, there was always a debate about whether North Korean bad behavior was the U.S. fault, or was it North Korean fault, or was U.S. policy wrong? This is often the criticism leveled against the Bush administration. But I think in this case, it was very clear that the United States tried to reach out to them, and they slapped that away.

Why did that happen? I think part of it is when you have a regime like North Korea that is a brittle authoritarian regime that’s going through a leadership transition, generally regimes like that do not exhibit positive, conciliatory, soft external behavior, right? When you have brittle dictatorships going through transition, they tend to really hunker down and be tough on the outside, not soft or willing to reform on the outside. I think that’s one reason.

The other is you can never discount the role that science plays in North Korean missile tests. There is a continual development of the missile and nuclear programs that operates on a separate track, a separate timetable that wants whatever the diplomatic timetable says. There are times when the scientist believes, “We’ve got to test them,” so they go ahead and do that.

Then the third element is about building up the leadership credentials of this 28-, 29-year-old and [showing] that he is capable of bringing new successes to North Korea, whether it’s a third nuclear test or particularly being able to put a space launch vehicle into orbit, which was accomplished while he was in office, and no other previous leader of North Korea has been able to do that.

How seriously do you think the threats were taken, and how seriously do you think they should be taken?

I think the United States took them very seriously. Never before had you had a North Korean leader, since the Korean War, that was directly threatening the United States with its statements — maybe not his statements but certainly the pictures that they showed of strike plans of the U.S. mainland.

These sorts of things I think the media took quite seriously. It got quite hyped up in the United States, and I think the administration felt they had to respond to that and really show that they’re doing something about that. So you saw the U.S. deploy B-2 bombers, F-22s, long-range stealth bombers, nuclear-capable, as part of U.S. military exercises. You saw a lot of attention to it in the U.N. and in the U.S. media. So I think they took it quite seriously.

Should they have taken it seriously? I think from a political perspective there was no choice. If you have a regime like this that is threatening the United States, it’s hard not to have to respond.

But presumably they don’t think that they were going to follow through? …

Part of the issue is that I don’t think anybody believes that North Koreans were really going to launch a nuclear missile at the United States. But we have to remember that at that time, we knew nothing about the leadership, and it was saying things and doing things and showing pictures of things that we never knew before. I think the basic question that rose to the surface to many decision makers was, does this guy know where the red line is? Does he know when the bluster should stop, or is he really going to do something stupid?

“There was genuine concern on the part of the United States … that this fellow may not know what is real and what is a video game.”

I think part of the reason the United States responded the way it did with this deployment of bombers, F-22s, as part of military exercises was to essentially send the message to this young fellow that if you don’t know where the red line is, we’re going to draw it for you. We’re going to show you where, how the United States responds.

Some people may have thought that was an overkill a little bit, but I think in the strategic context at the time, there was genuine concern on the part of the United States and the U.S. government that this fellow may not know what is real and what is a video game. …

And how well do you think the U.S. understands the workings at the top of the regime?

I still think we have a very poor understanding of the top of the leadership in North Korea, the inner circle and how it operates, who are the key players. Obviously we know some of them, what the dynamic is like among them.

This is the hardest intelligence target in the world, and it’s not because intelligence hasn’t been trying to get it. I think they have. It’s just too difficult because it is the most closed regime in the world. It’s very hard to get a really good sense of whether this guy is securely in power or whether he’s still jockeying for his position. Who is supporting him? Who isn’t supporting him? We have theories, but I don’t think we have a good sense factually on the ground of how that all operates.

That must make policymaking very difficult.

… If policymaking is based on how you think someone else is going to react, but you don’t know enough about them to know how they’re going to react, it certainly makes policy[making] quite difficult.

But at the same time, I think the current administration, the administration in South Korea have pretty much been on the right track and trying to show this new leadership there is a positive path if they’re willing to take it, but at the same time show that they’re not going to be pushovers and succumb to North Korean extortion or brinksmanship tactics.

And whether you know a lot about the leadership or not, I think that’s what we consider the middle-of-the-road on this, and that’s the path that I think Washington and Seoul and Tokyo have been pursuing.

Isn’t there a danger to the strategic patience that the 1 percent Pyongyang elite carry on living a nice, comfortable life, and they’re slowly stumbling toward viable nuclear weapons? …

I do think the downside to so-called strategic patience, is that it allows North Korea patience to build nuclear weapons and their ballistic missile program. There are sanctions. They’re under the toughest sanctions backed by the U.N. that we’ve ever seen. But at the same time, that has not impeded them from making developments in terms of the program, so that’s clearly the downside of strategic patience.

The problem, in part — at least in the States — is that the North Korean issue is not sort of a generic foreign policy issue. It’s become such a controversial issue that decisions about engagement, not to engage, who do you send to a meeting, who do you not send to a meeting, this has become such a controversial issue that the decision is only made in the White House, not somewhere in lower levels of the State Department.

A North Korean decision always comes to the White House, and therefore it becomes a very political one, and I think it’s very difficult for the current American president to say, “Strategic patience isn’t working; I’m just going to try engaging,” because there’s so many political liabilities that come with that, whether it’s attacks on the Republican side, whether there’s views of people that say, “They’ve cheated on the two past agreements; why do you think that this is going to be any different?” …

Administration officials, at least their talking point is that strategic patience under this weight of sanctions will eventually cause the North Koreans to come back genuinely interested in some sort of negotiation. But I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case, if China continues to play this role where they backfill whatever the sanctions take away.

If you’re Kim Jong-un and you’re looking at the global situation over the past decade, you see [Libyan ruler Muammar al-]Qaddafi and the [Syrian president Bashar al-]Assad now, you’d certainly think the nuclear issue might be kind of the one ace in my hand, so it’s going to take an awful lot to give that up.

… I’ve heard the North Koreans say very clearly to me, they said: “You attacked Iraq because it didn’t have weapons of mass destruction. You attacked Afghanistan because it didn’t have weapons of mass destruction. You will never attack Iran because they have nuclear capability, and you will never attack us because we have nuclear capability.”

I think there is there is something to that. I think they do look around the world and see what’s happening, and it may spur them to pursue this capability even more quickly. They only can look at Syria, for example, and see what was clearly an effort that North Korea helped to build a reactor there, but it was taken out by the Israelis.

It’s that kind of event, a show of force that deters the North Koreans from pursuing their weapons. Or is it the demonstration of force that reinforces for the North Koreans, “We have to get these weapons as quickly as possible,” because what the Israelis found in Syria was a reactor vessel, a construction site? There was no missile material. It wasn’t operational or anything. If it had been, it would have been a much more difficult position.

… Does President Obama have a different view on North Korea?

No. When one hears him speak about North Korea, and he gets asked a question about “What about engagement? Is that possible?,” it’s interesting to me, because the only place you hear the U.S. government equating North Korea’s possible opening with the opening we see with Burma is from the president himself. You don’t hear it [from] people at other levels of the government.

They’re two completely different cases, but we’ve heard the president say that, so at least in his mind he believes that there is a possibility for a Burma-type opening for North Korea if they’re ready to take that path.

If that’s what the president believes, if there’s an opportunity, I think he would want to pursue that. The problem is that North Korea has given no such opportunity, and they have no capacity to signal credibly that they’re interested in that. …

It must be very difficult for American diplomats to see [basketball player] Dennis Rodman flying in as the only American ever to meet Kim Jong-un.

I think this again speaks to the question of the inability to predict what this fellow will do, because it was only a few months ago that the executive chair of Google, Eric Schmidt, was in North Korea.

There is more information, there is more Internet, there are more cell phones in North Korea. What a fantastic opportunity for a new young leader to signal his opening to the world, or at least some degree of opening, and of course that never happened.

Schmidt went there, but he was never given an audience with the young leader. Yet only a few months later, one of the weirdest men on the planet comes into the country and becomes self-proclaimed best buddies with this North Korean leader. Then more recently he went in and talked about how he held the Kims’ baby. And this is one of the strangest people in the world, Dennis Rodman, saying that one of the weirdest leaders in the world wants to be normal.

So it’s not a very credible signal. The equation doesn’t even compute, I think, in most people’s minds. Again, it just speaks to the unpredictability and how little we know about this fellow and what moves him to take the actions that he does.

… It seems [Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues] Ambassador Robert King was refused entry two weeks ago. What’s the thinking behind that?

… There is a phrase that’s often heard which is, “North Korea never fails to miss an opportunity.” They’ve been given many opportunities to be able to signal some sort of interest in doing things differently, and each time they slap it away or they fumble it.

We’ve seen a series of those things happening in the past six months or so, so it raises the question of, is there a debate inside? Do we see this sort of inconsistent behavior because there’s a debate in the country about which way it’s going?

There may have been at some point a debate. But I think with what is now called the Baengnyeong [Island in South Korea] that has been announced by this new government, the notion that they want to pursue nuclear weapons … but at the same time they want to pursue economic development, this is what they clearly stated that time, which in American parlance means you want to have your cake and eat it, too, because every single deal that has been reached between the United States and North Korea in the past has always been trading political recognition and opening for their nuclear weapons. So the leadership in North Korea is now saying the nuclear weapons are in their constitution and that they’re not willing to trade it.

They want both weapons and economic development, which again, for any U.S. policymaker, makes it very difficult, because this is not what the past agreements were about.

How do you think that Kim Jong-un proposes that kind of economic development given that he doesn’t seem to want to reform?

Kim Jong-un faces what is the dictator’s dilemma, which is that they need to open up to survive, but the process of opening up could lead to the collapse of the regime — not the state, but of the regime. So this is a dilemma that he faces. It’s one his father faced; it’s one his grandfather faced.

“Kim Jong-un faces what is the dictator’s dilemma, which is that they need to open up to survive, but the process of opening up could lead to the collapse of the regime.”

So when North Korea talks about economic development, what they are largely talking about are projects that they can keep closed off from the majority of the population and that can provide immediate cash, hard currency, for the regime.

This idea of trying to start something that will then eventually bleed into the rest of society and create change, that is not the sort of opening North Korea wants. They want tourism projects that can be fenced off where people go; they pay money, and they leave. That’s the sort of project that they’re interested in.

The Kaesong Industrial Complex, the Diamond Mountain project, some of these economic zones that they’re doing on their border now in China, in a sense that’s what these are. They’re small islands of economic activity that become a vehicle for funneling hard currency to the regime but minimize the impact on the North Korean population more generally.

How significant do you think that technology is in North Korea?

… This is probably one of the interesting bright lights on the issue, which is within the past few years we’ve seen the doubling of cell phone registrations in North Korea, more people, not with control, but access to the Internet, more access to radios, people seeing DVDs of what’s going on outside North Korea.

This is probably one of the most interesting developments, and for a country that tries to control the information that gets into society, I think they’re going to find that you cannot do that if, at the same time, you want tablets and you want cell phones.

If you want tablets and you want cell phones, the first thing is that once you inject those into society, they immediately become conveniences of life that spread like wildfire. My understanding is that North Korea went from zero to 1 million cell phone registrations in three years. But to get from 1 million to 2 million, it only took one year, and probably to get from 2 million to 3 million will only take six months.

So more and more people have access to cell phones. Can these phones call outside of North Korea? No, not really. But they can text each other. There is an awareness and ability for the population to communicate instantaneously that was never there before. That is something.

You don’t know where that’s all going to lead. Is there going to be an Arab Spring in North Korea? Probably not likely. But it is something new that allows society to think on its own more than it ever has in the past and to understand that there is a world on the outside that is better for them than inside North Korea.

Do you think that potentially the international community could do more to get information in, whether it’s radio stations or DVDs or USBs, given that that is one way of breaking the spell?

I certainly think that there is more that could be done. The issue in many cases is, if you really want to promote this sort of information injection into the country, it does require some sort of policy changes on the part of the governments outside North Korea, which have very much of a stand-off attitude, focus on sanctions that don’t provide anything.

But if you want to get iPads into North Korea or other sorts of things, that’s going to require change in our policy, particularly in our sanctions policy, which is, as I said before, a particular decision that can only be made at the highest level.

And there are many who would be against that because they see it as empowering [the] regime in the short term, even though it may, as you said, break the spell in the long term. People are not ready for that trade-off yet.

The other way is to fly these balloons in as NGOs [non-governmental organizations] have been doing, but whether that’s actually going to create any sort of change, it’s hard to say. It’s actually a threat to the people to do that, because if any North Korean citizens get caught with one of these care packages that come in the balloons, that’s it for them; they’re done.

I can understand the sentiment behind it, and it is a piecemeal way of doing things, very symbolic, but it’s not the answer.

And in terms of America’s approach to North Korea, obviously the nuclear issue is at the forefront of everything. But where do issues like human rights, political camps, Kenneth Bae, [a U.S. citizen sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea, allegedly for committing “hostile acts” against the government], where do they feature? Or are they so far in the background that they don’t get much attention?

U.S. policy, really since the late 1980s, has really been singularly focused on the nuclear issue — to some extent the ballistic missile issue as well in the Clinton administration, but it’s really been focused on the nuclear issue.

Within the past six to eight years, the human rights part of this has become much more a high-profile issue in U.S.-North Korea relations. I think the primary reason that was the case had to do with the 2005 Six-Party joint statement, in which one of the working groups that was created was U.S.-DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] bilateral relations.

How do you normalize those relations? It became very clear that the United States could never consider normalizing relations with North Korea unless it got rid of its nuclear program. But then the other thing was the way it treats its own citizens. So I think it was from that point on that this really became an issue. A senior envoy for human rights was named, these sorts of things.

That has been increasingly an important element of U.S. policy toward North Korea. The nuclear still remains a priority, but I think the human rights aspect has become much more important in recent years, and the awareness among the American public and in the world more broadly about the human rights in North Korea has grown exponentially over the past few years.

One thing I found interesting [was] about Kim Jong-un’s ex-girlfriend being executed.

The more access they have to phones, Internet and other things, that concrete wall that has been there for 60 years or so will become more porous, and little bits of information will keep getting in. Obviously on the border with China there’s a lot of information. But even beyond the border with China, I think there’s potential for much more information to be spread among people in the country.

There’s a recent report that said that within North Korean society now, it’s actually quite [in] vogue to say, “Actually, I understand that this is what’s happening outside of North Korea.” You’re not part of a conversation unless you can bring pieces of information of what’s happening outside the country into a circle of friends talking in general.

That’s very interesting, because that creates a collective way of thinking about how the government is falling short on the social contract with its citizens. You get much more independent thinking.

The other aspect of this is, of course, the market. Even more long-standing than phones or the Internet, the market in North Korea has been growing for more than 20 years now since the famine. The average North Korean now gets about half of their livelihood from the government, but the other half they’re getting from going to the market and buying things and trading things, and that, too, creates an independence of mind in the society from their government.

Again, does this lead to an outcome, revolution, these sort of things? No one knows. Many people wouldn’t make that bet. But it is something. In North Korea, you always look for things that are new, variables that are new and that might matter. So I think this information, the market, these are the things that really sort of matter.

What has been the role of women in the markets?

I think it is largely women, ajummas, who run markets. If you’ve ever met a Korean ajumma, she doesn’t take guff from anybody, and especially from some young security officer who’s trying to close down the market or to tell them that they only have five minutes left. [Editor’s note: “Ajumma” literally translates to “aunt” in Korean, but in common usage, it’s a colorful, sometimes derogatory term referring to tough-talking middle-aged women considered an integral part of Korean culture.]

If you think about at least the reports of any sort of civil disturbances in North Korea in recent years, it usually has something to do with the markets, or it has something to do with the economic aspect. When they tried to redenominate the currency a few years ago, [there were] lots of disturbances as a result of that.

Again, it’s not the Arab Spring. It’s not. But at the same time, I don’t think that we should be afraid to say that there are elements of what we see in North Korea that you could piece together as leading in a direction that could lead to great political discontinuity in the country.

Many social scientists are afraid to say that no one could predict the collapse of the Soviet Union, no one could predict the collapse of the Arab Spring. Afterward everybody said it was obvious. But I think in the case of North Korea, there are credible pieces that you could put together and say there really is a potential here that something quite dramatic could happen.

… China is hugely important. What do you think their view is of Kim Jong-un and the regime?

I think they too were hopeful at the beginning, as many were, that we would see some kind of reform or change. I think China for many decades had a very clear long-term strategy for North Korea, which was to make North Korea like China or like Vietnam, capitalist with communist characteristics. And I think you could very clearly see that in the way China approached the former leader of North Korea.

We did a study that looked at every visit that Kim Jong-il took to China in 10 years, from 2000 to 2010. You look at all the places that the Chinese took him, it was very clear what their strategy was: top-down economic reform. They’d take him to cell phone factories, car plants, fiber optic plants, you name it. And that’s clearly failed. The Chinese have not been successful at doing that. …

“I think what’s become very clear with this young fellow is we have no idea what motivates him, what drives him. Perhaps the only person that does is Dennis Rodman.”

Probably the most disappointing thing about this new North Korean leader is in all the time that he’s been in office, there hasn’t been a single credible sign or evidence of economic reform. Development of the nuclear program, the weapons, everything else reached the society, but you cannot point to a clear piece of evidence that there is an economic reform. I think that’s disappointing to the Chinese.

I think they’re disappointed with the leadership, but at the same time, they don’t want him to go off the deep end and create more problems for China, and I think they continue to keep him at arm’s length and provide these things to the regime to keep them afloat.

The other aspect, I think, is that China is very adamant about economically engaging with North Korea for China’s interests, so that’s extracting the minerals in the north, creating some of these free-trade zones along the periphery. They’re doing this not because they’re trying to help North Korea; they’re doing this to help China.

But I would say, bottom line of that assessment, they’re disappointed in this new leadership and are unhappy it’s more of the same. But at the same time, I don’t think they’re willing to change their strategy. They’re not willing to cut ties and seek a unified Korea or anything of that nature, because they still see that as being the worst outcome.

How well do you think they understand the very top of the regime?

It’s hard to say. I think they probably understand it marginally better than the rest of the world only because they have more on-the-ground access than anybody else does. But I think this regime is still a mystery for everybody.

We kind of knew to some extent how the previous leader operated, Kim Jong-il. We sort of knew patterns in the behavior, what to expect, smile diplomacy versus provocations.

I think what’s become very clear with this young fellow is we have no idea what motivates him, what drives him. Perhaps the only person that does is Dennis Rodman. …

When you had direct conversations with officials from North Korea, did that give you an insight into the regime? How did you find those associations?

Negotiations, like any negotiations, can be very frustrating. They can be very exhilarating depending on whether there is momentum or there isn’t momentum. I think it’s still hard to gauge just talking at a negotiator’s level. It’s hard to gauge or get insight into what is happening in the capital, in the leadership, just because these people are so far removed from the leadership, even in a system like theirs where it’s basically a totalitarian regime where one person is making or a group of people are making all these decisions. It’s very hard to get a sense of the leadership even in a negotiation, but I think we have results from negotiations that reflect what direction the leadership in North Korea wants to go.

Right now, we don’t have negotiations; we don’t have real patterns in behavior that we can rely on. And again, from the perspective of a social scientist and an analyst, this is very challenging, because there’s nothing you can really grab onto. There’s no consistency in their behavior except for the fact that this guy likes basketball. So that’s very concerning.

In terms of Kim Jong-un actually being a threat to the United States, how far in the future do you think that would be, in terms of realistic threat?

They’ve always historically presented a very clear threat with their conventional forces on the peninsula across the DMZ [demilitarized zone] to 22 million people of Koreans in Seoul and 100,000 American expats, not to mention Japan as well, which they can target now today.

I still think we have to worry. People say, well, they’re not going to nuke the United States, because that would be the end of the country, and I agree with that. But there’s several things we have to worry about.

One is proliferation. They’ve sold every weapons system they’ve ever developed. Are they going to sell long-range ballistic missile technology, or are they going to sell fissile materials? These are all things that we have to worry about.

And then the other is, even though North Korea has been deterred from another war, there are still scenarios in which you can imagine provocations that can escalate. The most notable of these was the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel in 2010 by a North Korean submarine. More of those sorts of actions by an overzealous, inexperienced leader can easily ratchet up tensions on the peninsula and lead to an escalation of military hostilities between North Korea and a South Korea that’s not going to take this stuff anymore.

Even though they are deterred from another Korean war, there are still many other scenarios in which they propose a direct threat to U.S. national security interests, which is why I think this issue still remains very much a front-burner issue for any administration, the current one or any administration that comes in the future. …

Jason M. Breslow

Jason M. Breslow, Former Digital Editor



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