This is a time of hopes and fears for the Trump-Kim meeting. Neither sentiment is helpful in the activity of making an intelligence estimate. It will be useful to attempt an estimate that is as completely objective as possible. We can immediately examine it for weaknesses of subjectivity. After the meeting, we can compare it to the accuracy of sentiment as a predictor, learning something about the faculty called judgment. And if our estimate proves wrong, we can more than shrug our shoulders. We can take it apart and find out why.
Quoting the CNN article,
“All these (promoted) guys are top Kim Jong Un guys,” said Michael Madden, author of the highly respected North Korea Leadership Watch blog. “All three of them have held very sensitive and high level positions under Kim Jong Un, they’re very loyal (to him), and all have experience interacting with foreign delegations.”
Madden’s blog relies on a general characteristic of any propaganda organ. The first purpose is dissemination of propaganda. But it has to be embedded in a large matter of harmless truth. All but the most gullible media consumers unconsciously fact-check against what little they know. On the trivial, obvious level, media must correspond with the consumer’s world. Madden’s blog dissects North Korean media for the factual material that must accompany propaganda in the media delivery.
This is very good open source material, but conclusions about motives for actions are more speculative. Quoting,
“(Kim) is not going to want these military commissars helping themselves to any of this assistance coming to the North,” Madden said. “That was a problem during the sunshine period, a lot of misappropriation and malfeasance.”
Inferences of Madden, and unnamed administration officials, about Kim’s motives are:
- The replacements are loyal to Kim.
- Misappropriation and malfeasance are the reasons for replacement.
If these inferences are not aided by espionage, they rely on the hypothesis that Kim is “good.” But Kim’s inner nature is one of the unknowns, so it is circular reasoning. If we later conclude that Kim is “bad”, it will be equally plausible that:
- The replacements were driven by personality, the reason of Stalin’s purges. Stalin was paranoid. Since even paranoids have real enemies, the nuances become inaccessible to open source analysis.
- Rather than a primary motivation of preventing malfeasance, Kim wants control in detail, as did Stalin, through personalization of the power structure.
We have some indication of Kim’s level of paranoia. His uncle, Jang Song-thaek, was executed in December 2013. He is thought to have advocated the prioritization of of economic reform over military development. Quoting Wikipedia,
Chinese media and North Korea experts suggested that Jang Song-thaek’s fall reflected a rejection of his efforts to prioritize economic development, and a victory for North Korean advocates of a military-first policy.…
A man was executed who aspired to be what Kim is hoped to be. But put that aside for a moment. According to Madden et al., Jang Song-thaek was building a parallel power structure. The structure would have acquired the royal dye of legitimacy with the replacement of Kim Jong-un by his half brother, Kim Jong-nam.
Kim Jong-nam was a man of little ambition. He ws the original heir, booted for trying to visit Disneyland Japan on a fake passport. There is no evidence that he had any desire for power, though it is reasonable to suppose that Jang Song-thaek could have drafted him to be the figurehead.
When the media mentions the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, it comes with words like “alleged”, while omitting “Kim Jong-un” except to note that they were half brothers. But intelligence is a business short of facts, and the circumstantial evidence is as good as it comes: Kim had the authority and means, VX nerve agent, to accomplish the murder of his hapless brother.
Since Kim Jong-nam gave no evidence of ill intent, the motive is simply their shared blood, the fear of a usurper of the throne. In the years preceding his murder, Kim Jong-nam repeated begged for his life. (Guardian) North Korea killing: Kim Jong-nam pleaded for his life, say reports. What follows is predicated on the conclusion that Kim Jong-un ordered the killing of Kim Jong-nam, very close to the official determination of the U.S. State Department. (Reuters) U.S. sanctions North Korea for killing of leader’s half-brother with VX chemical.
Since Jang Song-thaek had the capacity and motive to conspire, his execution had the logical basis of self preservation. But Kim Jong-nam lacked capacity and motive. His murder identifies someone as a threat based on who he is, not what he thinks, with lethal consequence for that person. Hence an insight rare in open-source, a diagnosis of paranoia.
So far, we note:
- The tendency of pundits towards circular reasoning, imposing a personality on the problem when the problem is the personality.
- A specific facet of personality.
- The uncertainty created by the above.
These are just partial conclusions. We aren’t done yet. To be continued shortly.