The only predictable thing about North Korea is its unpredictability


South Korean President Moon Jae-in (right) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shaking hands at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas / Korea summit press pool via Reuters

Here’s an answer for those who question the potential of the peace process which recently began on the Korean peninsula: the Berlin Wall fell. The Soviet Union collapsed. Apartheid ended. Myanmar’s generals allowed free elections in 2015, which lessened the military junta’s half-century of oppressive power. More recently, Angola, Gambia and Zimbabwe’s long-serving strongmen agreed to their peaceful removal from office rather than plunge their countries into violent turmoil. Last month, Armenia achieved a people’s revolution in forcing its long-time leader to respect a previous public promise to step down in 2018. And Northern Ireland has been bound by a peace agreement for more than 20 years, thereby ending one of Europe’s longest and seemingly most intractable conflicts.

Startling change has often been an unpredictable constant in world affairs. It is startling because it is deemed practically impossible before it happens. Turkish-American academic Timur Kuran, who has written copiously on the general theory of “revolutionary surprises”, notes that when political changes of epochal significance occur, they tend to leave social scientists just as dumbfounded as the participants and laypeople. The academics, like everyone else, have little “predictive success in practice”, writes Kuran. No one believes the change will come to pass so the possibility is so heavily discounted as to be reduced to nought.

This applies to popular revolutions just as much as convulsive change to a political or social system. Saudi Arabia’s current fast-paced cultural, social and economic reforms are a case in point. No one saw them coming and no one would have predicted them, say in 2015.

In a 1995 paper titled The Inevitability of Future Revolutionary Surprises, Kuran stated: “The French, Russian and Iranian revolutions are only three of the successful revolts that stunned their leaders, participants, victims and observers.” Indeed, one of the central points of Alexis de Tocqueville’s masterpiece The Old Regime and the French Revolution is that no one foresaw the fall of the French monarchy. Kuran added: “Just weeks before the Russian Revolution of February 1917, Lenin was suggesting that Russia’s great explosion lay in the distant future. Even the Ayatollah [Ali] Khamenei was stunned by the events that propelled him to power. Although in public he was insisting that the shah’s regime was on the brink of collapse, to his close associates he was confiding serious reservations until about two weeks before his triumphant return to Tehran.”

Could a great surprise, an epochal change, be in the works on the Korean peninsula?

As before, the naysayers are vocal and have good arguments. They rest on the history of North Korea’s failure to honour previous denuclearisation agreements, specifically, in 1992, 1994, 2005 and 2012.

As US National Security Adviser John Bolton dispiritingly told American television audiences last Sunday: “We’ve been to this place before”. It was a reference to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s new, smiley public persona as a man of peace and his stated aim of working towards a nuclear-free region.

In this instance, Mr Bolton can hardly be accused of gross misstatements and rank falsehoods. But as a hawkish proponent of untrammelled American power, can Mr Bolton legitimately be said to suffer from an acute failure of imagination? Could the naysayers be rejecting even the possibility of an acceptable compromise?

There is some evidence — and it goes back long before Donald Trump ran for president — that Mr Kim was contemplating change. Barely noticed by all but the most dedicated North Korea-watchers, Mr Kim executed a pivot of sorts five years ago. Unlike his late father Kim Jong-il, who ruled North Korea from 1994 to 2011, Mr Kim has been making small but significant changes to the dictators’ playbook. Whereas Kim Jong-il ruled by the songun paradigm, or “military first” politics, his son pivoted to the byungjin policy in 2013. Byungjin means “parallel development of nuclear weapons and the economy”.

By all accounts, he has achieved the first. As of November last year, North Korea has significant nuclear capability. Its Hwasong-15, the furthest-reaching intercontinental ballistic missile possessed by Pyongyang, could theoretically travel about 13,000km, which puts almost every point on the world map within range, except for South America and Antarctica. North Korea also claims it can mount miniaturised nuclear warheads on its missiles but there is no independent verification of this boast.

Even so, Mr Kim leads a nuclear-capable country. It would not be that surprising if a millennial leader dreams of embarking on another trajectory too — towards economic growth — while making the trade-offs required and maintaining some security provisions.

This would go some way towards explaining Mr Kim’s new foreign policy, one that better addresses his strategic interests at this point of time.