The Personality of Kim Jong-un; Fencing the Problem

Let’s drop the nuclear physics for a bit. People want know what makes Kim Jong-un tick. Theories abound, but no candidate has the quality that says, “this nails it.”  In the euphoric moment, political types tend to confuse fact and desire. But the intelligence community is not so easily beguiled. (Reuters) Understanding Kim: Inside the U.S. effort to profile the secretive North Korean leader.

My own attempt at a compact theory appears in, Trump says ‘major, major’ conflict with North Korea possible:

  • The rule of Kim Jong-un is too weak to survive cancellation of these [missile, nuclear] programs.
  • If Kim Jong-un is deposed, it is most likely that he will die. He is too dangerous to his challengers to be left alive.
  • In the protracted negotiations with the father, Kim Jong-il, under the 1994 framework, the program slowed, or appeared to stop for periods, but no assets were relinquished by North Korea. Hence the son cannot relinquish assets.
  • The portraits of father and son hang side-by-side. This is not for decoration. It is symbolic proclamation that the son is the continuation of the father. A loss of symbolic continuity would immediately activate the weakness of the son’s power base.

with the conclusion,

The bullet list has tight linkages, implying that the object of regime change is identical as a goal with nuclear disarmament of North Korea.

But the human mind is not ultimately knowable. This is a game of almost-facts. The estimate should be read as, “This is likely to be the case.”  Now this estimate is challenged by new emotions, producing new biases, caused by a political meeting that may have featured either genuine sentiment or really good acting.

As a compact chain of logic, my theory may share the inherent weakness  of the three theories presented in (CNN) Why Kim Jong Un came in from the cold: 3 theories. But it should not be an invitation to pick one of the four. That would be like betting at the track without an edge.

The real takeaway is that complicated theories do not work very well by themselves. Deduction has limits. An additional mode of logic must be invoked.  Precedent or consensus are no help, because the meeting is  a singular event. If four theories with at most six logical steps (count the paragraphs) contradict each other,  should we look to more complicated theories, or simpler ones?

I introduced a technique called “fencing” in No successor to Maliki named; fencing the problem. Quoting,

Fencing the problem is an important part of the predictor’s toolkit. Sometimes the fence is made of facts; other times, pseudo facts, things that have higher probabilities than the swirling cloud of amorphous possibilities.

By surrounding the problem with “almost facts” the solution becomes a bounded space. It can be used to knock a theory out of contention. It happens when the theory hits the fence and keeps on going. But let’s first knock down the euphoria a bit. It centers the     mind.

The concept of a personality profile useful in the conduct of  foreign affairs and conflict is rooted in the Second World War. The rulers of the Axis powers were colorful, histrionic, labile demagogues. Their personalities were adorned with quirks as colorful as the feathers of exotic birds. But Joseph Stalin, more relevant to the current question, was ordinary.  See author Simon Sebag Montefiore‘s book Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar.

When not in a sadistic mood, Stalin’s traits of persuasion earned him the nickname “Uncle Joe.”   He deceived some of the most important political figures in the West. A small circle of diplomats with extensive exposure to the Soviet Union  accurately divined him. But it took until the 1947 publication of the X Article by George F. Kennan, that the political establishment understood what the small circle knew years in advance.

Their story is the subject of The Wise Men; Six Friends and the World They Made, by Walter Isaacon and Evan Thomas. This is a slow-cooked book. It depicts, not a  the wisdom of sudden, magical divination, but the stew of a decade, resulting  in their ability to see what others could not.

That resource for  North Korea does not exist. We have instead the reports of defectors, who, not being members of any intellectual establishment whatsoever, are treated more like raw data than people of respect. Their effect on the political establishment is by the conduit of the intelligence community. Defectors are like microdots. If you magnify them enough, you can see the message, but you can’t feel it. Empathy is lacking.

This conclusion risks being true: Lacking empathy, which is the skill of simulating the mind of another, we diminish the threat  by imagination. It’s analogous to the Stockholm Syndrome.

To be continued shortly.


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