Global News Journal
Beyond the World news headlines
Former U.S. defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s attempts to be philosophical about ‘known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’ gave him a reputation for slipperiness and cant. The phrases uttered in 2002 to explain the military’s failure to improve security in Afghanistan have passed into folklore, alongside such gems as ’stuff happens,’ which was his explanation for the looting that followed the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003.
The ‘known unknown’ concept is a more useful tool in journalism than you would think from the derision heaped on Rumsfeld by reporters. As journalists we spend our time uncovering facts, reporting data, breaking news and offering insights into the meaning of events. We rarely stop to contemplate what we do not know, what we cannot know and what impact that ignorance has in shaping perceptions.
No place is more opaque, more secretive and more fiendishly difficult to intepret than North Korea. It is inaccessible, its leader does not give interviews and it rattles the nuclear sabre to a timetable and for a purpose we can only guess at. As we tremble with fear at the thought of Pyongyang developing an atomic arms capability, it is instructive to remind ourselves how thoroughly our interpretation of the North’s behaviour is overlaid with our own projections and assumptions. We build our framework of expectations on the shaky soil of past experience, historical parallels and a paucity of real, contemporary detail on how North Koreans think and how they live.
On a recent trip to north-east Asia it struck me how challenging it is to peer over the formidable wall that the North has erected around itself. Divining the real distribution of power around Kim Jong-il and extrapolating from it his next steps has been compared to Cold War Kremlinology, the part-art, part-science process of guessing how the Soviet Union was being run. It is the nature of tightly-knit elites that they are hard to fathom. Nobody credible has been able to claim they spotted in advance that Mikhail Gorbachev would be the successor to Konstantin Chernenko in 1985. So, add to Soviet-style secrecy North Korea’s clan system and dynastic tradition, and you have a recipe for inpenetrability. Kim Jong-il’s third and youngest son, Kim Jong-un, is now ‘widely accepted’ as the heir presumptive to his ailing father. But might the flimsily-sourced stories on the succession have been solidified into ‘fact’ by self-reinforcing group-think?