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The Peninsula

To Young North Korea Watchers

Published March 24, 2023
Category: North Korea

I’m currently completing a book on North Korea watchers – the community of scholars, analysts, government officers, NGO advocates and journalists who, for one reason or another, commit a portion of their lives to watching North Korea. After twenty-five years in government, academia and consultancy, with much of my time working on Korean Peninsula affairs, I’ve seen the best and worst. When a student asked how to be the best, I suggested it was simpler to avoid being the worst. I gave this advice.

The Media Temptation

Avoid shaping analysis for the media. North Korea is a media darling. Aside from the missiles, nukes, and airport assassinations; there’s the haircuts, broken buildings, and mass parades. This is an incredible temptation for North Korea watchers. It’s too easy to get on the media’s rolodex and stay there with sensationalist remarks about the latest event: Kim Jong-un’s not in the media for a few weeks, and world war is around the corner; there’s a meeting between Kim Jong-un and a South Korean leader , and it’s a fundamental change in North Korea’s behavior; a few photos of Kim Jong-un’s daughter, and there’s eight reasons why she’s the successor. Many North Korea watchers develop a natural and likable tendency to exaggerate North Korea in media commentary.

A good analyst must ensure that media responses are engaging but still remain within the realm of analytical credibility. There is always the potential for escalation, but it’s never an inevitability. Use guarded language and avoid overt sensationalism.

You Don’t Know Kim Jong-un

Avoid personalizing North Korea. Writing about “what Kim Jong-un wants” or “what Kim Jong-un is thinking” suggests you are either holding secretive conversations with the boss man or you’re able to tune into his brain waves like a 1990s video game. Some can get away with it. They’ve either proven their capacity as analysts or engaging media commentators. The young analyst needs to avoid writing about what Kim Jong-un is thinking. Personalizing North Korea as “Kim Jong-un” negates the all-important human factor in interstate relations.

No state, even the most authoritarian, is a singular-minded entity. There are centers of power and influence, which compete and even calculate their interests in the context of support or opposition to the current leadership. France’s King Louis 14th is apocryphally accredited with the infamous phrase “L’État, c’est moi” (I am the state), but his last words as recorded by court office holders captures his and every leader’s reality: “Je m’en vais, mais l’État demeurera toujours” (I pass on, but the state always remains). When a missile is launched or negotiations proposed or refused, it is not an individual acting, but the state.

A good analyst must ensure that assumptions are not treated as facts. Label actions undertaken by the state as such, and don’t assume that you know what Kim Jong-un is thinking.

Analysis Is a Tradecraft

Don’t neglect your analytical skills. Some individuals are just naturally great analysts with the ability to discern relevance, assess impact, and connect the dots. For others, it takes a lot of work. You need to be able to know how your mind works and where your cognitive and cultural biases lie; recognize that there are limits to information and assessment; and to keep an open mind and be able to contrast competing hypotheses.

But it doesn’t necessarily take years of agency training and apprenticeship (although it helps). There are plenty of resources available to hone your skills. One of the oldest, and still one of the best is Richards J. Heuer’s Psychology of Intelligence Analysis. One of my favorites is The Craft of Political Analysis for Diplomats. With blogs, podcasts, and online courses, it is never too late to learn. A good analyst thinks about how they are thinking, before they think about the target.

Strategic Change Starts in the South

Don’t forget South Korea. Analyze South Korea before turning to North Korea. While keeping an open mind is important, it pays to remember that North Korea is only one half of a system that encompasses the entire Korean Peninsula. We are used to North Korea being treated as if it acts independently of South Korea. In reality, its every move is determined by the greatest threat to its survival – a freer, richer, larger ethnic and cultural twin to the south.

North Korea survives despite itself. It is a sclerotic state with an extremely limited capacity. Its only strengths are a last resort nuclear deterrent, the use of which would end the state; an experienced and skilled network of mafia-like grafters (often with diplomatic cover) spread across the globe; and the hope that the population of South Korea will one day succumb to the belief that peace can be preserved by sharing power. A good analyst recognizes that assessments of North Korea first require an understanding of South Korea.

Language and Culture Matters

Don’t give up on learning Korean. A deep division exists between area studies specialists who emphasize the importance of language and culture to understand North Korea, and subject specialists who emphasize authoritarian governance, nuclear weapon development paths, coercive diplomacy, and other fields, to better understand the situation.

Much has been said on this matter in debates that reappear time and time again. In a study for the Korea Economic Institute (KEI), I looked at the differences between how North Korea was viewed in Seoul and Washington. In another piece, I looked at how language impacts analysis. The conclusion of my studies and just about every debate is that language and culture matters.

There are a number of analysts with very limited Korean language skills who are incredibly well-informed and insightful. What they lack in language skills, they more than make up for in subject knowledge and analytical skills. Yet, in the end, even these analysts would undoubtedly be better analysts if they understood Korean language and culture. A good analyst never stops seeking to improve their skills.

The above comes with the proviso that the advice was designed for beginners who want to be competent analysts. If you want to just be a North Korea Watcher, then start writing now about Kim Jong-un’s heart condition, his daughter’s leadership capacity, his lesser known son’s education in Switzerland, or the potential for war resulting from some combination of all three. Make it up, sensationalize it, and sooner or later, you’ll be invited on prime time!

Dr. Jeffery Robertson is Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America, an Associate Professor of Diplomatic Studies at Yonsei University, and a Visiting Fellow at the Korea Studies Research Hub, University of Melbourne. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Shutterstock.

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