Alive or Not? The Perils and Pitfalls of Analysing North Korea

Main Image Credit The North Korean flag. Courtesy of Simon Rosengren/Pexels

An appeal to reason, logic and intellectual discipline in analysing North Korean affairs.

Over the past two weeks, there has been a lot of speculation about the health and whereabouts of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Reports range from claims that he is dead, in a coma or observing isolation as a result of coronavirus fears. Not only has this episode raised questions about Kim’s current health status and the succession process in the event of an unexpected or early demise; it has also shone a light on the challenges of trying to understand and analyse the country that is so often referred to as the Hermit Kingdom.

Opaque as the Mist on Mount Paektu

Lack of clarity, certainty and reliable information is often part-and-parcel of researching North Korea, and is not limited to tracking the health and movements of Kim Jong Un; it is also the bane of any measured and evidence-based analysis. The purpose of this analysis is not to add to the speculation or debate the multitude of rumours, but consider how we still follow the principles of rigorous analysis, even in relation to North Korea.

Lending more credit to a hypothesis than the evidence supports can have serious consequences; it can lead us to make unfounded claims and decisions, with serious consequences. From the spread of misinformation to political instability, there is a need to ensure our response – both in the governmental and non-governmental sectors – is measured, well supported and caveated where appropriate. The recent commotion around Kim’s health and whereabouts is a prime example of how such assumptions can lead to much – often unfounded – speculation. This is somewhat even more important in the case of North Korea, where the opportunities to gain clarity through direct engagement are severely limited.

Much of the hyperbole around Kim’s condition over the past weeks came as a result of reporting that a US official told CNN they were concerned that Kim’s health was in ‘grave danger’. Yet many of the claims have been refuted by the South Korean (ROK) and Chinese government reports which have asserted that they are seeing nothing unusual. We should never assume that the intelligence community has the full picture, or that classified sources are a silver bullet. Even when trying to read a target like North Korea, open-source information has tremendous value. Governments also have biases and access limitations as well as political reasons for sharing, or not sharing, information, and also often rely heavily on the open sources. Acting on misinterpreted intelligence can be dangerous.

North Korea is a tightly controlled state. However, the limitations on access to accurate and clear information doesn’t mean a complete lack of insight and ability to conduct analysis. Sources are often limited, difficult to corroborate and inconclusive. But we should try to understand a source’s heritage, and treat it with the high levels of caution and limitations it might warrant. Sometimes there is just too little information available, meaning the number of competing hypotheses is large, uncertainty is high, and saying ‘we don’t know’ should carry more weight than pushing one particular narrative over another, despite the fact that it might not result in a clickbait-worthy headline. Even with often incomplete information, we can attempt to build a picture. Although it might never be possible to fully achieve this or rectify discrepancies, it can help analysts to limit or prioritise certain hypotheses.

When information does appear to be available, it should not be taken as conclusive and should be placed in the appropriate context. At present, North Korean state media continues to report that Kim Jong Un is still sending letters to foreign leaders. This, of course, is not enough evidence to support the intellectual leap that it is proof Kim is well. All that tells us is that state media reporting is carrying on business as usual, as such correspondence is regularly reported under the ‘leadership activities’ sections of multiple media outlets in North Korea. Yet just because this can act as a smokescreen does not mean that such reporting is not important and that it should, therefore, be completely set aside.

Knowing What One Doesn’t Know

As crucial as it is to rigorously consider the evidence and sources that are available, the same is also true for the information that isn’t available. For the lack of a certain bit of information does not mean that the activity to which it may refer does not exist either. This again creates the opportunity to fall into the trap that because we are not seeing evidence for something, we must conclude it is not happening. The current lack of information on the public appearances of Kim from North Korean state media and Pyongyang’s refusal to provide any clarification on this should not result in the conclusion that because they have not responded to international speculation about Kim, he must be gravely ill. In fact, all it does is merely remind us that an inability to disprove a supposed event does not equate to proving it.

The debate has raised some legitimate and useful questions. What does the line of succession look like after Kim Jong Un? What are the possible outcomes should his reign end abruptly? How might we better understand competition dynamics of the elite in North Korea?

However, as always, these questions should be answered in a considered and evidenced-based manner, and with rigorous, measured analysis, that clearly lays out the limitations of the information available and acknowledges gaps in our knowledge.

We should have the courage to say ‘we do not know’ when the information is not enough to discern the most likely hypotheses.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.



Cristina Varriale

Research Fellow

Proliferation and Nuclear Policy

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