How to Avoid a Bad Take on a Hard Target: Analyzing North Korea the Right Way
The vexing security dynamic on the Korean Peninsula and the mysterious nature of the Kim family regime continue to whet the public and professional appetite for insightful analysis of North Korea. This attention, however, does not always translate to high-quality analysis. Too often, authors and readers alike fall prey to the same mistakes: They misunderstand Pyongyang’s messaging, engage in mirror-imaging and groupthink, misdiagnose context, fixate on the “America factor,” or mis-use sources.
These mistakes are understandable. North Korea has been famously dubbed a “hard target” by intelligence services. It is perhaps the most closed society in the world, and it has become even more isolated since the COVID-19 pandemic. Pyongyang does not provide regular press briefings and only discloses data in exceptional circumstances, such as when it released daily COVID-19 statistics following an outbreak. Furthermore, the power in autocratic North Korea is extremely concentrated — the inner workings and decision-making of Pyongyang’s leadership are closely guarded secrets. Most North Koreans lack internet access, and the select group of elites who use the internet provide limited results for U.S. attempts to harvest signals intelligence. The information North Korea does purposefully release is highly manicured public messaging, so the relevant implications need to be carefully gleaned from the subtext.
But despite all this, getting North Korea right remains crucial. In order to effectively deter aggression, stabilize crises, and pursue opportunities for peaceful normalization, it is vital that the next generation of North Korea specialists have a nuanced understanding of Pyongyang’s modus operandi. Here’s how to get started. Emerging North Korea analysts should learn to read between the lines of propaganda, ditch their biases, work in teams, contextualize their sources, and expand their horizons beyond the peninsula.
Practice Proper Propaganda Analysis
Reading North Korean propaganda begins with learning how to see the value hiding behind the noise and repetition. This entails parsing Pyongyang’s public messaging from five different angles: who it is coming from, who it is intended for, when it is released, how it is presented, and what the context is.
Propaganda is worth deciphering precisely because it is so carefully controlled. North Korea exercises complete control over its public messaging to shape and manage domestic and international public opinion. And because propaganda is controlled, it relates to regime intent rather than fact. In that vein, the veracity of North Korea’s claims of “victory” against COVID-19 or its missile launch details, while valid questions for medical or military experts, are of little relevance to the North Korean propaganda analyst. The question of interest to the propaganda analyst is why North Korea is saying it.
North Korean articles and statements all sound similar because they parrot established language, which is often meaningless noise for analytic purposes. The trick, however, is separating the wheat from the chaff, identifying what is new, and figuring out the reasons for any changes. For instance, it is noteworthy that Kim Jong Un used the phrase “strategic and tactical cooperation” — an expression typically reserved for North Korea-China relations — in his letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin six months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The “who,” or source level, is significant because it reflects the degree of regime commitment to the message. Not everything coming out of North Korea is equally important. Thus the higher the level of communication, the stronger the regime’s commitment. For example, a North Korean Foreign Ministry statement is likely to be more closely aligned with North Korea’s foreign policy than a news report.
The “to whom,” or audience, is primarily a question of whether North Korea is making information available to both internal and external audiences, or just to external audiences. Pyongyang often uses internet-based sources like the Foreign Ministry website or Uriminzokkiri — a North Korean government website to which the average North Korean does not have access — to maintain policy flexibility or shield the domestic public from sensitive information while voicing its message.
The “when,” or timing, is about how quickly or slowly North Korean media report on or react to a development. The speed of coverage or reaction indicates the sensitivity the country feels over an issue. The faster the reaction, the greater the sensitivity. Quick or slow is relative to North Korea’s average response time to a certain issue or event.
The “how,” or tone, refers to the substance of North Korean messaging. This covers language, namely terminology, adjectives, adverbs, and conditionality, or omissions of language. It also covers photos and videos, as well as the placement of an article in a newspaper or newscast. North Korea can modulate or amplify its message as much or as little as it wishes through the use of words as well as visuals.
The “context” — everything else not covered by the four aforementioned elements — is the domestic and external circumstances in which the regime’s perceptions are formed and decisions are made and rolled out. We need to connect the dots of broader trends and patterns and establish a baseline of North Korea’s historical patterns to understand the context that may be driving Pyongyang’s behavior. For example, examining North Korea’s missile launches piecemeal may be meaningful to military experts, but they should be viewed along with North Korea’s domestic and foreign policy trends to understand regime intent.
Failure to contextualize North Korea’s public messaging can lead analysts astray. Cherry-picking data and exaggerating the significance of a statement or event that in fact may not be alarming, drawing conclusions based on the proximity of two events that may not be connected, comparing apples and oranges, or over-parsing a single data point — any of these can generate counterproductive speculation and misinformation.
Dos and Don’ts
Countering bias is a major aspect of prudent analysis. To do so, it’s important to work in teams, contextualize sources, consider the problem from the adversary’s perspective, and recognize and avoid groupthink.
Don’t Rush to Judgment: When Kim periodically recedes from public view, rumors swirl about his health. But smoke doesn’t always mean fire. In April 2020, an article used an unnamed U.S. government source to claim that Kim was in “grave danger” following a medical procedure. Earlier reports said Kim had received cardiovascular surgery. Not long after, Kim resurfaced, looking no worse for wear, and neither of those claims have since been verified. This is a lesson in patience and source management.
Check Your Biases at the Door: Analysis of North Korea is too often a Rorschach test, reflecting more about the analyst than the events they are striving to understand. Analysts sometimes fall into the trap of seeking evidence to fit a pre-existing belief. Analysts who are biased in favor of North Korea tend to give overly positive interpretations of regime intentions. Those biased against North Korea automatically assume Pyongyang will never change. Dueling accounts are constructed in which the two camps disagree on the basic proceedings of important turning points in the history of the peninsula, including all of the most significant attempts to transform the U.S.-North Korean relationship. This dichotomizing produces over-simplified policy debates on important questions such as denuclearization versus arms control and the sequencing of normalizing diplomatic relations, questions that demand more rigorous and unbiased debate.
Avoid Groupthink and Work in Teams: North Korea watchers can be a tribal bunch. It’s hawks versus doves, engagers versus deterrers, and human rights advocates versus humanitarian advocates. This competitive atmosphere, wherein advocates of particular approaches vie for primacy in a zero-sum contest, spoils a community spirit and is counter-productive to the enterprise of analysis. For example, it’s not necessarily true that human rights must be sidelined during periods of rapprochement, or that deterrence by punishment will always be more effective than deterrence by denial. Although many of these approaches are framed as diametric opposites, most can easily be complementary.
A flexible, issue-specific, and team-based approach can help to demonstrate this by bringing together analysts from opposite sides of these debates. An ideal team member strikes a balance between general knowledge and specialization. Hew too much towards the generalist camp and you’re spread too thin. Veer towards over-specialization and you’ve become the world’s leading expert on North Korean tank sprockets. Good analysts compensate for the inevitable appearance of blind spots by collaborating with partners who possess knowledge and skill sets that they lack.
Know Your Source: Besides reading primary North Korean sources — preferably the Korean-language reports or reports that were translated from the vernacular — it is important to take advantage of the essential and irreplaceable insights of people with direct personal experiences inside North Korea. Media outlets with sources on the ground, such as Daily NK, can provide invaluable information about North Korean life and insight into North Koreans’ interpretations of regime messaging. For example, a North Korean party daily article in 2016 covered South Korea’s candlelight revolution leading to the downfall of then-President Park Geun-hye. The article intended to criticize the South Korean government, but North Koreans were instead captivated by this rare glimpse of democracy in action. Humanitarian aid workers go where few others can. They have excellent insights and meaningful personal relationships with ordinary North Koreans. They tend to be careful because their continued access to helping the most vulnerable people inside North Korea is contingent upon them not publicly criticizing the regime. Foreign diplomats enjoy excellent access to North Korean personnel, but mostly with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, far from the inner core of power brokers who really run the state. Refugees who have escaped North Korea are the single best source of information with regards to their own direct experiences and relationships. But too often, the media asks refugees to foresee impossible-to-predict outcomes — “When will the next nuclear test be?” — or speculate about the leadership’s psychology — “Does Kim Jong Un really trust Donald Trump?”
Avoid Mirror-Imaging: Many authors fall prey to the cognitive bias of mirror-imaging. For example, many analysts (and policymakers) believe that North Korea may be willing to denuclearize in exchange for economic benefits. It makes sense at face value: nearly half of the population are undernourished and GDP growth has stagnated due to the country’s self-imposed isolation. But the proposed rewards packages disregard North Korea’s unique political economy, in which a very narrow group of stakeholders enjoy a stranglehold over the country’s resources. Therefore, the regime perceives so-called economic inducements that undermine this delicate dynamic as poisonous carrots. Kim’s priority is not widespread economic development, but his own grip on power. To avoid mirror-imaging, it is essential to consider the problem from multiple perspectives in North Korea.
Expand Your Horizons
Obsessing over the uniqueness of the Korean Peninsula is counter-productive to rigorous analysis. It’s important for analysts to zoom out in time and space to place incidents inside the context of larger trends.
Not Everything Is About the United States: Authors too often assert that North Korea’s actions, ranging from weapons tests to key official statements, are to get “America’s attention.” Pyongyang’s actions are driven by a combination of domestic and external factors, and the United States may or may not be a top consideration. Sometimes, domestic factors are more at play. Kim Jong Il’s illness in the summer of 2008, and the need to assert his power at home and abroad, was presumably a key driving factor behind Pyongyang’s second nuclear test in May 2009. Sometimes tests are about the need to make progress in the country’s nuclear and missile programs. America is just one audience of many when North Korea publicizes its weapons tests. Similarly, the Kim regime first decided to develop a nuclear weapons program and still maintains it today not simply to deter the United States, but also to lessen security dependence on China (and the Soviet Union), compete with South Korea, and ensure the security of the regime. North Korea’s nuclear weapons support the Kim government’s maintenance of power. A trumped-up invasion threat legitimizes totalitarian control, and nuclear weapons are the symbol of the government’s capability to defend against this supposed threat. The unsavory implication of this rather inconvenient truth is that the United States and South Korea may therefore not be capable of giving North Korea’s leadership what it needs to denuclearize.
Confusing Causality: A classic example of this is ascribing the cause of all North Korean missile launches to U.S.-South Korean military drills. Most of these military exercises are regularly scheduled, with different permutations occurring at different times throughout the year. The Korean People’s Army Strategic Force conducts missile tests to further the development of its designs under the guidance of the Kim regime. It is true that both the joint drills and the missile tests have previously been paused to accommodate negotiations, but it is erroneous to assume that one is always a response to the other.
Know More than Just the Korean Peninsula: A single-minded focus on the Korean Peninsula to the exclusion of all else often leads to a tunnel view. For instance, we don’t have to wonder how North Korea might end its isolation and enter the global economic community — we can look at the journeys of other post-socialist states to help forecast the obstacles, opportunities, and priority areas of reform. A past report did just that. Such analysis is not possible without mobilizing functional knowledge and historical comparisons. Obsessing over the uniqueness of North Korea and declaring it the exception to every rule is the easy way out.
Don’t Assume Too Much Chinese Influence: U.S. analysts and policymakers sometimes overestimate the extent of Beijing’s influence over Pyongyang. Authors too often presume that North Korea is subservient to China and therefore that Beijing can get Pyongyang to behave. This fundamentally misunderstands the dynamic between China and North Korea, which is perhaps better characterized as mutual hostages rather than unquestioning allies. Analysts made the same mistake in 1950 when the consensus judgment was that the Soviet Union would restrain China from intervening in Korea.
North Korea eventually makes a fool out of most analysts brave enough to make a bold, specific prediction. However, this is no excuse to throw up our hands and declare “We cannot assess at this time.” It’s impossible to predict with certainty what specific actions North Korea will take and when, but good analysis reduces uncertainty by identifying patterns, interpreting symbols, and deciphering intent. This equips policymakers with the tools to create opportunities to redefine the relationship, avoid unnecessary conflict, and deter and defend against aggression.
Markus Garlauskas is the director of the new Indo-Pacific Security Initiative at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, housed within the Atlantic Council. He is an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies. He served in the U.S. government for nearly twenty years, and was appointed to the Senior National Intelligence Service as the national intelligence officer for North Korea on the National Intelligence Council from July 2014 to June 2020.
Rachel Minyoung Lee is regional issues manager and senior analyst at the Vienna-based Open Nuclear Network and a nonresident fellow at the Stimson Center’s 38 North Program. She was a North Korea collection expert and analyst with the Open Source Enterprise of the U.S. government from 2000 to 2019.
Jonathan Corrado is director of policy for The Korea Society, where he produces programming and conducts research on the U.S.-Korean alliance and the Korean Peninsula. Beginning in autumn 2023, he serves as an adjunct lecturer at SUNY Stony Brook, teaching a course titled “North Korea: State, Society, Diplomacy, and Security.” He was previously a translator for Daily NK (Korean to English).
Image: The Kremlin