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Study Shows North Korea Not So Unpredictable After All

Updated on October 3, 2015

The power of big data

You may have heard of “big data.” Seemingly everywhere these days, it’s a term that refers to the dramatically increasing volume and availability of data in an increasingly complex and technologically-advanced world. It has become critical to the decision-making of organizations as they continue to develop innovative ways to analyze and utilize massive amounts of data. It can also be used, however, by policy makers when making various decisions, including predicting the actions of other countries. In fact, a new study may provide a way to do just that. Using data derived from newspapers, the researchers have discovered a method for accurately predicting the behavior of a typically unpredictable adversary – North Korea.

Using big data to predict North Korea's belligerent actions

For the study, researchers Hyoung Goo Kang, Y. Han (Andy) Kim , and Jong Kyu Lee sought to determine if they could predict North Korea’s belligerent actions by examining the tone of over 70,000 articles in English language newspapers written just prior to acts of belligerence. Specifically, they hypothesized that such behavior would be more likely if the news about North Korea took on a negative tone. To determine the tone, they measured “how many times negative words – net of positive words – were used relative to the total word count in all the news articles about DPRK over a specified time period.” They ranked the belligerency of North Korea’s actions on a scale of 0 to 3, with “Nuke/ICBM testing” being the most belligerent, followed by “unfriendly actions & military aggressions.”

The power of the UK media

The results show that there is indeed a significant correlation between the negativity of newspapers’ tone and the belligerency of North Korea’s actions, but only for publications outside of South Korea. Why? One possibility is that the South Korean media covers a wider variety of issues related to North Korea, such as the everyday life of its citizens, while sources elsewhere in the world tend to “focus on more sensational issues of military brinkmanship.” They also found that not all countries outside of South Korea are created equal. When each of these countries was analyzed separately, only publications in the UK had significant predictive power. The reason, the authors assert, is that the UK media is better informed regarding North Korea’s forthcoming actions. Since there are so many pro-North Korean organizations in the UK that are sponsored by the North Korean government, and since the UK has had diplomatic relations with North Korea for some time, its media has better access to insider information.

A twisted birthday for the "Dear Leader"

But that’s not all they found. The data showed that “reports of the intelligence services reported in the form of rumors in the news media have significant predictive power,” suggesting that such reports are generally accurate. It was also revealed that North Korea is more likely to act aggressively “on the five days around” the birthdays of current and past “Dear Leaders” – a term used by indoctrinated North Koreans to refer to the brutal dictators that oppress them. What is also intriguing, though, is what apparently doesn’t predict North Korea’s behavior. For one, North Korea’s own announcements that they plan to test nuclear weapons were found to predict nothing. This shouldn’t be that surprising, though, given the regime’s long history of making obscene threats on which it does not act. It also turns out that North Korea does not react aggressively to “unfriendly” actions taken by the U.S, whereas it does react aggressively to such actions by South Korea. In the researchers’ words,

“The policy makers have been debating about whether friendly or unfriendly actions to DPRK or hawkishness or dovishness of the ruling party would trigger any changes to DPRK in terms of nuclear weapon development. Nothing seems to matter except SK’s unfriendly diplomatic actions.”

The findings of this study are not insignificant. They provide an innovative way to use big data to predict geopolitical events. Policy makers and corporate strategists may now be able to accurately predict the usually unpredictable North Korea’s behavior, and potentially other countries’ actions as well. And of course, we now know that unlike most people, who celebrate their birthdays eating cake and ice cream, North Korea’s dictators celebrate theirs by setting off nukes.

Kang, H.G., Kim, Y.H., Lee, J.K. (2014). Can Big Data Predict the Behavior of North Korea? Social Science Research Network.

© 2014 Luke Souders


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    • profile image


      3 years ago

      Well, at least there is a very good attempt to predict when the North is going to be belligerent. Not sure how successful it will be.

    • Luke Souders profile imageAUTHOR

      Luke Souders 

      4 years ago from Baltimore-D.C. metropolitan area

      Thank you Mel, and thank you very much for the fan mail. I agree. Data is never perfect when it comes to predictions. Nonetheless, it is fascinating to learn all the ways in which big data is increasingly being used, and data-based predictions are becoming increasingly accurate.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 

      4 years ago from San Diego California

      Very interesting analysis. I don't think any amount of data could fully predict the actions of that nutcase, but I guess it couldn't hurt to try. Great hub.


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