NEW YORK — What does the death of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il tell us about the secretive, nuclear-armed prison state he ruled for 17 years?
Unfortunately, not much we did not already know.
US and allied Asian intelligence agencies (primarily Japan, Taiwan and South Korea) saw little or nothing amiss in North Korea as the dictator lived in his final days.
In a place where abnormal is normal — where speaking one's mind can land an entire family in the labor gulag, where little notes in pneumatic tubes still do the work that email or text would accomplish elsewhere — the traditional tools of intelligence have repeatedly failed.
“We simply do not know what goes on in North Korea, and anyone who claims otherwise is relying on that fact to make false claims,” a US intelligence official told GlobalPost on condition of anonymity. “We get a glimpse, we can extrapolate and try to confirm, but really, that’s about it.”
GlobalPost in-depth series: After Kim Jong Il
Ailing dictators is a particular subset of the intelligence world — various Soviet and East Bloc leaders reputedly lingered on death’s door for decades during the Cold War, and Fidel Castro’s imminent demise has been leaked by intelligence sources to the media so many times that no one really believed it when he finally did fall ill a few years ago.
Nonetheless, North Korea poses special problems. In virtually every other major country the United States and its allies seek to monitor — nations like Iran, Venezuela, Russia and Syria — access to both officials and average people is relatively easy, and even “open sources” — media, academic and internet outlets — can provide useful information.
None of this is true of North Korea. Thus did the 1994 death of the country’s founding tyrant, Kim Il Sung, catch intelligence agencies napping, as did the North’s nuclear test in 2006 and its second one in 2009, catch the West completely off guard. So, too, did construction by its specialists of an entire nuclear plant in Syria (destroyed by as Israeli airstrike in 2007), the transfer of both ballistic missiles and nuclear know-how to Pakistan during the 1990s, and its test launching of ballistic missiles over Japan’s territory in 1998.
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Scott Snyder, a Council on Foreign Relations fellow with as good a grasp as any American expert on North Korea, nonetheless has little solid evidence to base hard projections upon in the current situation.
In South Korea, the situation is no better. Opposition lawmakers have demanded the resignation of the head of the National Intelligence Service, who admitted under questioning this week his agency found out about Kim’s death when North Korean media broadcast the news.
One opposition leader, Kwon Seon Taek, told media that “this shows a big loophole in our intelligence-gathering network on North Korea.”
Invariably, such opaqueness hatches conspiracy theories. A Japanese academic, Toshimitsu Sigemura, shocked the World Economic Forum meeting in China last year by claiming that Kim Jong Il had actually died in 2003 and had been falsely represented by look-alikes since then to give his son time to prepare for the top job. Sigemura published a book on the topic in 2010, “The True Character of Kim Jong Il,” which intelligence agencies dismiss — yet can't disprove.
The other thing it hatches is paranoia. Lacking a way to know what is actually going on, the South Korean government took no chances — ordering its military on full alert. Arguably, that was a prudent maneuver but it was also an action that risks sending the wrong signal to the North precisely when its senior military commanders are on edge.
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China's limited influence
Even North Korea’s “eternal friends” in China seem befuddled. It remains unclear if Kim Jong Il’s death caught Beijing by surprise, though there are no signs the Chinese knew much more quickly than any other outsider.
Experts believe China’s presumed influence may be overstated in spite of the fact that China’s share of North Korean trade has ballooned to nearly 75 percent in recent years due to US, Japanese and South Korean sanctions.
The best evidence of this, Western analysts say, was the inability of China to reign in the North in 2010, when one of its submarines sunk a South Korean warship, followed by an unprovoked North Korean artillery barrage against a South Korean village.
Together, 50 South Koreans died in those attacks that were widely viewed as an effort to “legitimize” the military credentials of Kim Jong Il’s young son and now putative successor in the eyes of the North Korean public.
Judging from revelations by WikiLeaks earlier this year, the frustration and confusion goes right up to the highest levels in China, leaving its respective intelligence agencies, too, to make educated guesses.
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In attempting to assess the risk of war or something near it on the Korean peninsula, one might be tempted to consult the history of skirmishes and crises between the North and South since a truce ended all-out combat in 1953.
The result would be an interesting list of flare-ups and atrocities almost exclusively instigated by the North: hundreds of commando infiltrations; the kidnapping of Japanese civilians; the ax murder of two US soldiers (1976); a terrorist bombing in Burma that killed 18 Seoul officials, including much of the cabinet (1983); the bombing of a Korean Air Lines passenger jet, killing 135 passengers (1987); the firing of ballistic missiles over Japan (1998); two nuclear weapons detonations in this decade; and this year alone, the sinking of a South Korean warship in March and the deadly shelling of a South Korean island in November.
The Chinese, meanwhile, find themselves criticized for not exerting the calming influence some believe they possess. Worse, China has caused the US, Japan and South Korea to focus more intensely than ever on maritime disputes both with the North and with China itself. Last December, the carrier USS George Washington led a US-South Korean flotilla near the disputed “Northern Limit,” a maritime border set by the UN after the Korean War but never recognized by the North.
Consequences for China
More important to Beijing than censure, however, is that the incident has stiffened the determination of the US and South Korea to enforce their maritime rights in the Yellow Sea and has concerned Japan as well. The stabbing death of a South Korean coast guardsman by a Chinese fisherman whose boat was stopped in South Korean waters earlier this month is just the latest in a regular series of incidents involving Chinese vessels as those of South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and Japan.
This has backfired on the Chinese. Besides the recent muscular talk from President Obama about America’s intent to stay strong in the Pacific — punctuated by a new deployment of 2,500 Marines to northern Australia — China’s neighbors have increasingly taken steps to bolster their own capabilities.
Japanese officials earlier this year announced a new military doctrine, stressing publicly that some steps were being taken to counter China’s rise. Japan has said it may start taking part in US-South Korea exercises meant to rehearse for any future Korean conflict. These developments represent significant changes in Japanese doctrine and will be viewed dimly in China, which hopes to counter US arguments that Japan should begin to play a more “normal” (read: active) military role in East Asia 61 years after Pearl Harbor.
Unhappy as China may be, it gave its de facto blessing to the continuation of the Kim dynasty and the handover of power now apparently underway.
China’s acquiescence once again confirms Chinese priorities on the peninsula: China apparently feels compelled to tolerate a hereditary dictatorship rather than risk regime collapse and the enormous economic displacement and political risk that would involve.