North Korea: A dirty little secret

North Korea has long been a dirty little secret among analysts and intelligence agencies and that dirty little secret is now in danger of coming out for all to see. What is the secret you ask? Lean in and we’ll tell you – it’s just, well, it’s that we have absolutely no idea what’s going on in North Korea! No one does; intelligence is limited, motives are a mystery, their real strategy? Who knows! It’s a black hole for intelligence agencies and political analysts of all stripes.

Ex-CIA agent John Nixon wrote an excellent book recently called “Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein” in which he outlines just how badly the CIA had analysed both the psychology and strategic motivates of Saddam Hussein in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq Invasion. Leading up to the invasion, analysts including Nixon himself had access to 35 years of intelligence on both Iraq and Saddam directly; from face-to-face meetings between Saddam and Donald Rumsfeld in the 1980’s to caches of seized documents about the inner workings of the Ba’ath party. And yet, armed with all this intelligence, the CIA were unable to establish or predict that Saddam had no idea that the US would actually invade! Instead, Saddam saw the US posturing as domestically driven and genuinely believed that as the leader of a secular Arab state, he would be welcomed as a partner in the ‘War on Terror’. Who better than a man who routinely imprisoned and slaughtered religious leaders suspected of challenging his rule.

No such level of intelligence exists on North Korea. From an intelligence point of view, North Korea is a black box of unknowns. You wouldn’t know that from all the seemingly omniscient media reports and expert analysis recently about what Kim Jong-Un will do next. I suppose careers aren’t made by saying we know less about such an important security crisis than a retired Basketball player from New Jersey who was last seen on ‘Celebrity Mole’. But this is where we are – we simply don’t know; and trying to anticipate the other side of the equation, the Donald, is possibly even less useful.

The VIX remains low and investors haven’t yet run for the hills but there’s nothing markets hate more than uncertainty and it’s about time we admitted just how uncertain we are.