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On North Korea, even experts lack answers

Mon., Sept. 27, 2010

SEOUL – They’re called the North Korea watchers: a group of men who devote their lives to studying every satellite image for traces of nuclear activity, every photo for clues about Kim Jong Il’s precarious health and every official disclosure for hints of a changing of the guard in Pyongyang.

But North Korea is the nation that refuses to be watched, and its secrecy shows. A Seoul-based expert, Park Hyeong Jung, decided this year to examine 10 years of North Korea-related analysis. He’ll soon publish a paper about “just how terrible our research and predictions are.”

Nonetheless, weeks like this one – when Pyongyang promises something historic – leave outside analysts with the mandate to make bold pronouncements about North Korea’s future, even if they’re only making educated guesses.

On Tuesday, North Korea will hold a Workers Party conference, its biggest political meeting in 30 years. Many experts in Seoul and Washington believe that North Korea will designate Kim Jong Il’s youngest son, Kim Jong Eun, as the heir. The North Korea watchers will then tell the world what it means, and what to think about it.

At this point, North Korea watchers no longer debate the end goal of Kim Jong Il’s succession plan: They believe Kim Jong Eun has been picked, and the only question is to what extent this conference will formalize his rise. Experts, explaining their conviction, mention recent propaganda campaigns in Pyongyang, which focus on the “Young General.” During a recent trip to China, they point out, Kim Jong Il spoke of the “rising generation.”

The watchers – a collection of academics, researchers and former officials – generally acknowledge the inherent absurdity of their jobs. Washington-based economist Nicholas Eberstadt describes a profound North Korean information seal that leaves “so-called experts (to) plausibly spin out diametrically opposite interpretations of the same information.”

By some estimates, Seoul has several dozen such experts who earn their living by studying North Korea. That population hits triple digits if you include government analysts, and it climbs higher still if you include researchers in Beijing, Tokyo and Washington.

“This (conference) is a critical moment, and I’m excited,” said Cheong Seong Chang, a widely quoted expert at the Sejong Institute who predicted in January 2009 that Kim Jong Eun would become North Korea’s designated successor. “It will be revealed if my opinions and research are correct. But predictions can go very wrong. If you’re 70 or 80 percent correct, it’s very high. Even over 50 percent is good.”

Sometimes, careers are built around incorrect predictions. Seoul-based historian Andrei Lankov spent the early 1990s anticipating something that hasn’t happened. In his 30s at the time – “just a beginner,” Lankov recalled – he felt certain that North Korea would collapse after leader Kim Il Sung’s death. He craved the first-hand research that North Korea’s collapse would allow. He called it his “top academic ambition” to enter the nation that operated like a vault, turning the imagined into the tactile. He’s still waiting.

Among Seoul’s North Korea experts, Lankov speaks with unusual frankness about the limitations of his knowledge.

Lankov recently received a call from a Seoul-based diplomat representing a “small country – but I won’t name it,” he said. The diplomat wanted advice. He’d been asked to write a psychological profile, cabled to his home government, of presumed heir Kim Jong Eun.

“Do you realize what you’re asking about?” Lankov recalled telling the diplomat. “We know nothing about him but the approximate year of his birth!”

Some days, Lankov receives 20 media requests. Two weeks ago, he received a grant allowing him the resources to interview between 500 and 700 North Korean defectors – the starting point for a study of economic change in one North Korean town. This research represents the alternative to an ambition unfulfilled.

“North Korea will probably collapse in my lifetime,” Lankov said, “but maybe two or three decades from now, and I’ll be too old to do any quality first-hand research.”

North Korea watchers depend on information-gathering strategies that almost always have a downside. Some look to newspapers and official documents from Pyongyang, hoping to filter out the misinformation. Some seek out the notorious rumor-mill towns along the China-North Korea border. Some rely on defectors, who may hold extreme views of their native country. Some cultivate cozy relationships with South Korean intelligence officials.

“We are full of information,” said Yun Dukmin, a professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security. “But we do not know what is real.”


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