The basis of an open source prediction is weak compared to fact. Part of it is a little like French cooking; the art making of a sumptuous meal from unimpressive ingredients.
The goal is to analyze information available to everybody to extend beyond the obvious. One could be skeptical of one’s own resources so as not to try. The opposite pull, “there has to be an explanation”, leads to cobbling together with weak logic, actually subtracting value from the open sources, instead of adding.
The question of this post is, “What is Kim Jong Un Thinking?” It seems that by widespread variation of human talent, there are three groups who will naturally have different views of Kim Jong Un:
- Have no theory of mind. This group includes the psychopath, and people with mild tendencies towards Aspergers syndrome. To this group, Kim Jong Un is a black box.
- Aren’t full time empaths, but are somewhat receptive to explanations of how other people think.
- Those who obsess with cognitive empathy, like myself.
A proposition: Kim Jong Un engages in multiple strategies that are successful for him. It may not seem rational to us to execute people with an antiaircraft gun, but in a Darwinian North Korea, it seems, so far at least, to be a successful survival strategy. It allowed him to consolidate his inner circle among an elite that did not initially acknowledge an inherited mantle. This suggests that his strategy towards the Trump administration may be similarly complex.
The most plausible elements, inherited from his father, are:
- Keep them talking
- Never relinquish an asset.
- Project the madman, in speech and deed.
But there’s room for plenty more. Kim Jong Un has plenty of time to think. Echoing “there has to be an explanation”, he has to be thinking something. We know he likes basketball, which is known for the fakeout.
I first noticed this during the IARPA “Forecasting World Events” program, when Kim moved some truck mounted missile launchers to the coast. We can assume he gave the order for the missiles to be elevated to the firing position. The question was, would he fire a missile? With the whole world watching, he returned the missiles to horizontal. From this Switzerland schoolboy who loves basketball, I thought I recognized a finger gesture, and a fakeout.
The recent face off between Kim Jong Un and the Trump Administration followed this sequence:
- Warnings by the U.S. of the possibility of military action if North Korea continues to progress towards operational ICBM capability. The threat has been made in association with nuke and/or missile testing, but with a somewhat crumbly “red line” that has been an intermittent weakness of U.S. diplomacy for many years.
- The usual dire threats of nuclear catastrophe by North Korea towards the U.S.
- Verbal posturings from the Trump Administration that have tended to alternate between the strike option and diplomacy. The most recent of these is a definitive statement (WP): a strike option is ready to go.
- In response, Kim threatened to (The Hill) target the vicinity of Guam with a missile attack of an unspecified nature. (Splash, explode, or EMP?)
- The Trump Administration implied this would trigger the strike option.
- Kim deferred the Guam strike.
Superficially, it appears a U.S. “win”, with Kim backing down. But he changed the narrative, the story of the strike threshold, making it contingent on a strike on Guam. In public dialog, it transforms this:
- Strike North Korea to disrupt their missile/nuke program.
- Strike North Korea in retaliation to a hostile act.
In this war of words, the Trump Administration telegraphed the punch to China, which was forced to react with a definition of their foreign policy interests, forbidding first-strike against the North. Quoting (Reuters) Chinese paper says China should stay neutral if North Korea attacks first,
So the article headline obscures the real message from China. The sheer extent of verbal posturings by the Trump Administration has provided to Kim Jong Un what computer malware specialists call “attack surface”, the part of the adversary susceptible to attack. With computers, it’s code. In foreign relations, it’s the war of words , with real effects.
On January 17, 1900, Theodore Roosevelt penned a letter to the governor of New York, with a sentence that has stood the test of time: “Speak softly, and carry a big stick”. It’s a principle of what is now called “Big Stick Diplomacy.”
It isn’t one of the world’s great ideas. But regardless of what you think of Roosevelt’s foreign policy, he was a success in his own time. Wherever current events lead, “Speak softly…” will remain available to future statesmen.