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The Education of Kim Jong-un 5 The last six years have also seen Kim dotting the North Korean landscape with ski resorts, water parks, and high-end restaurants to showcase the country’s modernity and prosperity to internal and external audiences. They are also meant to deliver on his promise to improve the people’s lives—as part of his byungjin policy of developing both the economy and nuclear weapons capabilities—and to attract foreign tourists. Yet even as he is modernizing his country at a furious pace, Kim has deepened North Korea’s isolation. Having rebuffed U.S., South Korean, and Chinese attempts to reengage, he has refused to meet with any foreign head of state, and so far as is known, since becoming leader his significant foreign contacts have been limited to Kenji Fujimoto, a Japanese sushi chef whom he knew in his youth and whom he invited to Pyongyang in 2012, and Dennis Rodman, an American basketball player, who has visited North Korea five times since 2013. Kim Jong-un is here to stay. The Ten-Foot-Tall Baby North Korea is what we at the CIA called “the hardest of the hard targets.” A former CIA analyst once said that trying to understand North Korea is like working on a “jigsaw puzzle when you have a mere handful of pieces and your opponent is purposely throwing pieces from other puzzles into the box.” The North Korean regime’s opaqueness, self-imposed isolation, robust counterintelligence practices, and culture of fear and paranoia provided at best fragmentary information. Intelligence analysis is difficult, and not intuitive. The analyst has to be comfortable with ambiguity and contradictions, constantly training her mind to question assumptions, consider alternative hypotheses and scenarios, and make the call in the absence of North Korea is what we at the CIA called “the hardest of the hard targets.” 6 Jung H. Pak sufficient information, often in high-stakes situations. To cultivate these habits of mind, we were required to take courses to improve our thinking. Walk into any current or former CIA analyst’s office, and you will find a slim, purple book by Richards Heuer with the title Psychology of Intelligence Analysis. This is required reading for CIA analysts. It was presented to us during our initial education as new CIA officers and often referred to in subsequent training. It still sits on my shelf at Brookings, within arm’s reach. When I happen to glance at the purple book, I am reminded about how humility is inherent in intelligence analysis—especially in studying a target like North Korea—since it forces me to confront my doubts, remind myself about how I know what I know and what I don’t know, confront my confidence level in my assessments, and evaluate how those unknowns might change my perspective. Heuer, who worked at the CIA for 45 years in both operations and analysis, focused his book on how intelligence analysts can overcome, or at least recognize and manage, the weaknesses and biases in our thinking processes. One of his key points was that we tend to perceive what we expect to perceive, and that “patterns of expectations tell analysts, subconsciously, what to look for, what is important, and how to interpret what is seen.” The analyst’s established mindset predisposes her to think in certain ways and affects the way she incorporates new information. What, then, are the expectations and perceptions that we need to overcome to form an accurate assessment of Kim Jong-un and his regime? Given the over-the-top rhetoric from North Korea’s state media, Kim’s own often outrageous statements, and the hyperbolic imagery and boastful platitudes perpetuated by the ubiquitous socialist realism art, it has been only too easy to reduce Kim to caricature. That is a mistake. When the focus is on Kim’s appearance, there’s a tendency to portray him as a cartoon figure, ridiculing his weight and youth. Kim has been called—and not just by our president—“Rocket Man,” “short and fat,” “a crazy fat boy,” and “Pyongyang’s pig boy.” A New Yorker cover from January 18, 2016, soon after North Korea’s fourth nuclear The Education of Kim Jong-un 7 test, portrayed him as a chubby baby, playing with his “toys”: nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and tanks. The imagery suggests that, like a child, he is prone to tantrums and erratic behavior, unable to make rational choices, and liable to...


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