Today is a remarkable anniversary.
On October 9, 2006, a seismic event originating somewhere in the Korean peninsula exposed a lot of interesting facts about political, economical, and military experts. The event itself was quickly characterized as an explosion, and several explanations were proposed.
- North Korea has tested a nuclear device
- North Korea has ignited a large bomb
- North Korea has tested a nuclear device yet it failed to ignite
The second two were by far the most popular, as it seemed to be unimaginable how these hungry, backwards, Juche-hailing and ideologically incompetent people could ever design such a technical masterpiece. Ten days later, United States have confirmed that the event originated from a 0.8-kiloton nuclear explosion. Ten years later, the public perception of North Korea is by and large still where it was back in 2006, one even films epic movies about that.
Now saying “confirmation bias” would be just saying a spell and hoping that this magically explains everything. I think this effect has more components to it.
First, it seems that historic scale is not very easy to get an accurate intuition for. For example, all the cool technical advances in air and space travel are not that recent: The first flight of the Concorde is closer to Wright brothers’ plane as to 2016. The first satellite has flown 60(!) years ago. From this point of view, it is not entirely unintuitive that even with a 40-year technological handicap, one should be capable of creating rockets and nuclear weapons. (Just to remind you, 1966 corresponds to Saturn V, XB-70 and SR-73) This makes possible developments to a matter of resources and engineering capabilities.
Second, there is a question of ideology and existing stereotypes. Clearly, North Korea is not a nice place to live in. Clearly, the state exerts a lot of pressure and control on an individual, far more than anyone would deem acceptable. But even if this has an influence on the competence of North Korean engineers (it obviously does), it remains somewhat questionable to flatly deny them engineering capabilities from 1960s. People get surprisingly agnostic when it comes to weapons.
Thirdly, there arises a question about the results. So, ten years have passed, and did the perception of North Korea change? Does not seem so. One can still make funny jokes about Dear Leader, failures in their space program, yet this does not change the facts. And the facts are that the guys are pretty close to intercontinental ballistic missiles. Probably now would be a good moment to take them seriously.