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Analysis: Trying to make sense of Pyongyang's provocations is a bit like reading tea leaves.
LONDON, United Kingdom — When North Korea commits one of its periodic acts of aggression or provocation — such as the latest shelling of a South Korean military base, or the torpedoing of a South Korean warship earlier this year, the nuclear test explosion and the missile it fired over Japan last year, the rest of the world is left to guess about its real intentions.
Is this latest provocation just another attempt to draw attention to its demands? Is it a ploy to win more aid or concessions from the international community if it promises to stop to behaving badly?
Or is it something more sinister, perhaps a sign of a power struggle within the country as the ailing Kim Jong Il prepares the way for his untested son to assume the leadership?
No one outside the ruling inner circle knows for sure because North Korea is a great big black hole for the international intelligence community and the foreign news media. America's intelligence services rely primarily on satellite and communications intercepts to warn them that something is happening there but apparently have no spies within the regime to tell them what the leadership is thinking.
The news media have even less to go on. Other than an occasional organized visit to North Korea as a tourist, or the rare staged events to which foreign media are invited, such as the recent celebrations to introduce Kim Jong Il's son, foreign journalists have no access to sources inside the country. So they often rely on think tank “analysts” who can offer little more than educated guesses on what is going on in the black hole.
Global coverage of this Korean crisis reflects that fact. The news media simply does not know why North Korea bombarded the island.
• The big three American networks ran the story high on their evening news. They all used similar news agency footage of the attack and interviews with think tank analysts who didn't have a clue but made impressive sounding comments such as, “There will be no winners if this escalates.”
• ABC lucked out because Barbara Walters had scheduled an interview with U.S. President Barack Obama, but the most she could get from him was, “We strongly affirm our commitment to defend South Korea.” Quotes from other administration officials made it clear the administration wants to damp down the crisis.
• Most newspapers gave more background and context but relied, like the New York Times, on analysts who admitted that “trying to make sense of these seemingly random and often violent acts is a bit like reading tea leaves.”
• Other newspapers around the world gave less prominence to the story and ran, or rewrote, reports from the wire services that told the reader “who, what and when” but not “why.”
• North Korea is certainly the darkest of the world's information black holes. However, there is another — Iran — that is potentially more fraught with danger.
Iran is a more open society, but because there are competing power centers within the government, it is difficult to predict what the Iranian regime might do. Does Iran really intend to produce nuclear weapons? Does it hope to reach an eventual settlement of its 31-year dispute with the United States?
More reporting on the Iranian power struggle in the news media might help Washington make better informed choices when deciding how to handle a country that is undoubtedly America's number one foreign policy challenge.
With the newly empowered Republicans in Congress talking about the “military option,” it is more important than ever to know the intentions of the Iranians, and equally useful to know how they read America's intentions. Iran may be somewhat easier to understand than North Korea, but it is still a black hole that could suck America into making a terrible mistake.