Do You Hear What I Hear?*: Kim Jong-un’s DPRK and the Problem with Signals

Photo by Bridget Coggins.
Photo by Bridget Coggins.

By Bridget Coggins

What does it mean when a regime executes its own elites? What information does it convey? The recent news in Seoul has been dominated by the implications of Jang Song-thaek’s recent execution in the DPRK.[1] Purges and executions are not uncommon in North Korea, indeed Mr. Jang himself had been purged and rehabilitated before, but this particular event has raised substantially more concern. Many experts forecast ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ things in the future for regime stability or for the DPRK and the wider international community.[2] But high-level executions in other places, notably China, have not raised similar red flags.

I am not an expert on the DPRK. However, one of the most valuable tools that political science can provide is a context for thinking about important events like this. To my mind, this situation is a classic case of signaling behavior. In other words, Kim Jong-un is sending a message with his actions. If he were not, the Jang situation would have been resolved more quietly. Unfortunately, the DPRK’s opaque internal politics, regional security dynamics, and individual psychology can all thwart accurate threat perceptions by the key players in circumstances like these. And DPRK watchers are likely to succumb to similar perceptual problems when it comes to predicting how the future will unfold; e.g. whether the threat of the DPRK lashing out or collapsing is any greater now than it was before.

Below are four sets of questions that I believe are essential to thinking through Jang Song-thaek’s execution. They highlight just how complicated it is to draw accurate inferences in this situation (and in myriad others like it).

1. What or who is the intended target? Assuming that Kim Jong-un is sending a message, whom is he attempting to contact/influence?

  • Just Jang and his close associates
  • Discontents within the party and/or military
  • The party and/or military more broadly
  • New members of his inner circle
  • The populace
  • An external audience like the ROK, China, or the US
  • Some combination of the above
  • None of the above

2. What message is being sent? And, does the target correctly perceive the message?

It seems fairly apparent that the message is a threat (in the classic deterrent formulation: Do not do X, or I will do Y). But Mr. Jang was accused of a wide range of crimes (and social ills). Which, if any, are the Xs that Kim Jong-un is attempting to deter? Or is the X altogether separate from the public list? The most recent reports from Korean and American intelligence suggest that a struggle over resource revenues between Jang and the military — and Jang’s intransigence when he was ordered to relinquish control — were the true causes behind his fall. If accurate, this would have been very difficult to discern from the text and pictures provided by the KCNA.

As for the recipient’s perception, our information is highly constrained. Neither the US nor the ROK seem to believe that they are the intended targets. (Though there is some speculation that China is given Jang’s close and longstanding ties there.) More likely than not though, the target is internal and outsiders will only belatedly (if ever) find out whether the deterrent was effective.

3. What, if anything, does the signal or its timing tell us about Kim Jong-un and the DPRK’s stability?

In some circles, Jang’s execution has been taken as an indicator of Kim Jong-un’s brutal nature, his dangerous unpredictability, and of his perilous grip on authority. However, it is important to note that this news was not obtained via a leak or other clandestine information source. Therefore, it is unlikely that this very public removal is a cue[3] indicating internal instability or a precursor of regime change. The open brutality is part of the message, and not an unintentional glimpse behind the curtain.

That said, there might be downstream consequences that might generate instability even if they were not the cause behind Jang’s death. Some credible possibilities suggested to me are: that the regime has alienated China with the removal of Jang, who was trusted; that outsiders now believe that Kim’s policy is unmoored, unpredictable, or amoral; or that Kim is now internally without a valuable, reform-minded member of the inner circle to act as a scapegoat for greater economic openness. Still, these outcomes all depend upon others’ reactions; the hyperbolic rhetoric that accompanied Jang’s removal cannot and should not be taken at face value.

4. Finally, what are the common pitfalls when interpreting signals?

One of the best ways to fight against our own biases as observers is to acknowledge them. There are both rationalist and psychological reasons why signals are difficult to send and difficult to accurately perceive. A particularly comprehensive new book chapter by Janice Gross Stein outlines a number of problems that might be at work:

  • Security dilemma dynamics between the DPRK, ROK and US can make threat perception more difficult due to the indistinguishability between offense and defense and between benign and aggressive intentions. This is a particularly common problem for those attempting to interpret the behaviors of revolutionary and transitional regimes — or in this case a new and untested leader.
  • Domestic politics within the ROK and US are predisposed to evaluate the DPRK’s actions as threatening (and vice versa). Within both domestic populaces, a North Korean threat is “taken-for-granted.” Further, both governments may also strategically inflate the domestic audience’s threat perceptions in order to achieve their political goals. Whether or not it is a true threat, few politicians will lose votes for being seen as tough on North Korea.
  • The manner in which Jang’s removal occurred deviates so significantly from international norms — and the DPRK’s established norms for handling the removal of officials — that outsiders have elevated their perception of the threat. States with a strong tradition of the rule of law and due process are particularly likely to perceive an increased threat now.
  • Finally cognitive heuristics and their attendant biases affect our appraisals of the Kim regime’s intentions, not to mention our emotions. Of particular importance: we strive to simplify the world; to retain consistency with our preexisting beliefs; and we are not intuitively good at assessing probability. Many of these perceptual tendencies suggest that Americans and Koreans in particular will tend to inflate the threat and insecurity accompanying this event as they fit this behavior into mental model predisposed to see the DPRK as normatively bad, risky, and ill intentioned.

In short, I don’t have an answer for what these recent events tell us about DPRK’s stability or about its likelihood to lash out against the ROK or US. But I do submit that the heightened perceived threat reported by experts comes as much from uncertainty regarding the information being conveyed in this signal; its intended audience; and the observers’ own cultural and psychological processing as from the available facts — which are very few. Ruediger Frank, a longtime DPRK watcher is skeptical too, “We don’t even know when Kim Jong-un was born — how do we dare to pretend we know anything that goes on beyond that?” The implications of Jang’s death are certainly worth considering, but we should also be careful not to place too much confidence in expert prognostications in such an information poor environment.

* Apologies to Bing Crosby.

[1] Various other officials and associates have also been executed or have disappeared from public view, but have garnered far less attention.

[2] A small minority, including Paik Hak-soon, disagree: “Pyongyang would never have publicized divisions among the elite in this way if they were actually a threat.”

[3] In the signaling literature, “cues” are information unintentionally transmitted by a sender that somehow reveals its true type (typically to the benefit of the receiver).

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