The many known unknowns of North Korea

When Big Things happen, there is no shortage of commentators and pundits offering their predictions and analyses of what happens next and what should happen next, of whom at least some will be correct: al-Qaeda after bin Laden, the Arab Spring, eurozone summit after eurozone summit. So it at least a little refreshing, in the two weeks since Kim Jong-il death’s, that comment on the North Korean succession seems to be prefaced by a big ‘I don’t know’, ‘your guess is as good as mine’, or more eloquently, “I have no friggin’ clue what will happen”.

The blanket of secrecy that surrounds North Korea and the impenetrability of its politics leaves a pretty long list of, in Donald Rumsfeld’s famous terminology, known unknowns – the things that we know we don’t know. We don’t even know whether he died on a train or at home, or exactly how old Kim Jong-un is, let alone the specifics of the internal maneuvering among the various factions jostling for power and influence in the succession.

Instead, North Korea is perhaps the world’s last remaining ‘black box’, where the domestic politics and decisionmaking process is largely hidden from view, and analysts have only the ‘outputs’ of official statements to pore over or missile test to worry about. (A good many IR theorists, of course, like their boxes to be pretty black, where you can assume away the complicated internal politics and theorize about motivations from actions). This matters, of course, because as uncertain and unknowable as the situation may be, neighbours and interlocutors still have to make their next move. And yet, in a world of drones and the ubiquity of electronic (and therefore more hackable and monitorable) communications, this seems remarkable, to the extent that intelligence studies scholars shrug their shoulders at the extent of these known unknowns as something that not much can be really done about. Indeed, the signs that are discernible may be those of more interest to historians than to the policymaker,  in the words of one analyst:

“The most difficult aspect of assessing whether things are going wrong is that, like our intelligence collection capabilities which did not appear to provide effective warning that Kim Jong-il had passed away in advance of the official announcement, the critical developments that constitute a serious challenge to the Kim Jong-un leadership will also likely be lagging indicators of circumstances that have already changed.”

And let’s not even worry about the unknown unknowns. Like Kim Jong-il’s death, for example.

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