The presidential election is finally over and Nate Silver won. It was a "revenge of the nerds" moment: The data geek bested many of the cool kid pundits and their time-honored tradition of predicting election results based on gut feel, a favorite poll, and a few conversations with unnamed campaign aides and undecided voters in Ohio diners. Silver's 538 model proved what we should have known for years: good election forecasting is all about math, not anecdotes. It's the analysis of big data that produces big insight.
If only improving analysis of American national security threats were that easy. But of course it's not. Because assessing foreign policy challenges is less about crunching numbers and more about understanding the touchy-feely world of intentions -- how allies and adversaries think, what they want, how they feel. Intentions are still the tough stuff of most of our hardest security challenges -- whether China will become a responsible stakeholder or a revisionist power, whether Iran will cross the nuclear redline, whether North Korea will come in from the cold.
North Korea's twenty-something leader, Kim Jong Un, is the poster child of this intentions problem. Even though the DPRK is one of the most closed societies on earth, we know an awful lot about Kim's military. We can spot his country on a map, identify his Navy ships at sea, recognize his army's uniforms across the Demilitarized Zone, and even watch video of the Supreme Leader visiting amusement parks and kindergartens. We also have a pretty darn good idea of his nation's military capabilities, including the approximate number and types of nuclear weapons. Using commercial satellites, Google Earth, and other open sources, my colleague Sig Hecker, along with Frank Pabian, have even pinpointed the likely location of North Korea's third underground nuclear test tunnel, which they believe could be used with two weeks' notice.
The one thing that intelligence
analysts inside the government and academic experts outside the government don't
have a clue about is what this inexperienced leader with the dour haircut and
Mao suit intends to do next. Information about Kim was so tightly controlled
that as late as 2009, CIA officials were compiling their dossier of the heir
apparent based on secondhand reports from a sushi chef.
Given North Korea's penchant to play the reckless rogue, its growing nuclear
arsenal, and its close proximity to 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South
Korea, getting a better read on Kim Jong Un's policy preferences and
personality is no small matter.
So what does Kim have in mind? Experts are all over the map. Some see Kim's recent moves -- including public statements about ending "belt tightening" and rumored plans to start decollectivizing farms -- as a sign that North Korea might be moving toward Chinese-style economic reforms. A few, like Jay Ulfelder, think that political liberalization may not be so far-fetched. Victor Cha is far more skeptical, warning that Kim is no reformer, despite his love of pro basketball and pizza. About the only points of agreement among Korea watchers are that Kim likes Disney characters and that he's got a nose for throwback fashion styles. But even on this last point, it's still unclear whether Kim's dress is for show or for real -- is it a deliberate ploy to make himself look like his popular grandfather? Or is that just the Hermit Kingdom strongman uniform?