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Kim Jong-un is displayed on a giant screen during a concert on the eve of the 80th anniversary of the founding of the North Korean army in Pyongyang. Photo: Ng Han Guan / AP

A former high-ranking North Korean diplomat and defector, Thae Yong-ho, said today that "Kim Jong-un is not fully aware of the strength and might of American military power." He was testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee about Kim's thoughts on ballistic missiles and how best to deal with the regime.

Why it matters: "Because of this misunderstanding Kim Jong-un genuinely believes he can break the sanctions regime apart," once he can convince the U.S. to accept North Korea's nuclear program, Thae said. But he emphasized that military force cannot be the first answer to the security dilemma on the Korean peninsula and said that "it is necessary to reconsider whether we have tried all non-military options…before we decide [a] military [option]…is all that is left."

Kim Jong-un thinks he can maintain regional influence "by being able to credibly threaten the United States with nuclear weapons," per Thae.

Two questions lawmakers are asking:

  1. What should the U.S. be pressing Beijing on with regards to North Korea? The short answer from Thae: Allowing defectors to stay or go to South Korea and not sending North Koreans back to the North.
  2. Would Kim Jong-un accept a freeze of the nuclear program? Thae expressed that there is likely nothing that the U.S. has that North Korea would want enough to stop its nuclear program.

Go deeper

Updated 4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Supreme Court backs religious groups on New York coronavirus restrictions

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled late Wednesday that restrictions previously imposed on New York places of worship by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) during the coronavirus pandemic violated the First Amendment.

Why it matters: The decision in a 5-4 vote heralds the first significant action by the new President Trump-appointed conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who cast the deciding vote in favor of the Catholic Church and Orthodox Jewish synagogues.

USAID chief tests positive for coronavirus

An Air Force cargo jet delivers USAID supplies to Russia earlier this year. Photo: Mikhail Metzel/TASS via Getty Images

The acting administrator of the United States Agency for International Development informed senior staff Wednesday he has tested positive for coronavirus, two sources familiar with the call tell Axios.

Why it matters: John Barsa, who staffers say rarely wears a mask in their office, is the latest in a series of senior administration officials to contract the virus. His positive diagnosis comes amid broader turmoil at the agency following the election.

Bryan Walsh, author of Future
11 hours ago - Health

COVID-19 shows a bright future for vaccines

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Promising results from COVID-19 vaccine trials offer hope not just that the pandemic could be ended sooner than expected, but that medicine itself may have a powerful new weapon.

Why it matters: Vaccines are, in the words of one expert, "the single most life-saving innovation ever," but progress had slowed in recent years. New gene-based technology that sped the arrival of the COVID vaccine will boost the overall field, and could even extend to mass killers like cancer.