Riddles and enigmas from North Korea
By Andrei Lankov
SEOUL - A few days ago, Japanese television station TBS reported that Kim
Jong-il had had a second stroke and remained bed-ridden. This might be true.
Oddly, however, the Japanese newspaper Mainichi at the same time reported that
Kim was in fine health.
According to Mainichi, Kim jumped onto the pitch after watching a soccer match
to scold players for sporting long haircuts he found politically offensive.
This might be true as well.
But what is really happening to Kim? Is he actually confined to his bed?
Is he gradually recovering under the treatment of a famous French doctor, as
another Japanese report claims? Or is he truly
lambasting local soccer players? All this "news" has been widely reported by
the international media, but all these things cannot be true at the same time.
Perhaps it is time to take a look at what is known about North Korea - and what
remains a mystery.
The author is not privy to the great secrets of the assorted intelligence
services that are trying to penetrate the mysteries of Pyongyang palaces. That
said, one cannot completely rule out a possibility that the Dear Leader's most
trusted doctor is actually on the United States Central Intelligence Agency's
payroll, or that a couple of senior North Korean generals report to Seoul on
the recent decisions of Kim Jong-il's inner circle.
Such high-level penetration is not completely impossible - but it is very, very
unlikely. It seems that even the most cunning and successful intelligence
services are faring very badly when it comes to cracking North Korean secrets.
Things might be going relatively well as long as signal intelligence is
concerned: satellites do miracles these days. However, satellites and signal
interception and other technological gadgetry is good only when it comes to
detecting hardware. No satellite or drone can tell much about human plans and
intentions, or about the state of society, and this is where the real problems
To start with, the North Korean state is deliberately designed to be a mystery
for outsiders. No state is welcoming to foreign spooks, but most states limit
their counter-intelligence efforts. After all, perfect secrecy, if achievable,
is too expensive because it makes information exchange impossible and hinders
economic life. The North seems to be unrestrained by these concerns. Pyongyang
believes that total secrecy is the pre-condition of the regime's survival, and
clearly doesn't worry too much about the economic efficiency of its system.
The major source of information about any country is its media. However, since
the early 1960s the North Korean press ceased publishing economic statistics of
any kind. All information about economic performance is a closely guarded state
secret. Therefore, our knowledge of the state of the North Korean economy is
largely based on guesswork.
Still, certain things are known quite well. For example, foreign trade
statistics are easily deduced from the trade reports of countries which deal
with North Korea. On the other hand, when it comes to even the most basic
macroeconomic indicators, estimates vary greatly. North Korean per capita gross
domestic product is believed to be somewhere between US$400 and US$2,000. Also,
there are some topics which cannot be mentioned in official press or elsewhere,
such as the existence of rationing or the need to apply for a permit before
travelling outside the county.
North Korean watchers spend plenty of time perusing the Nodong Sinmun and Minju
Choson, the two official North Korean dailies which are available overseas.
Although boring and repetitive to the extreme - and full of endless eulogies to
the ruling family - these newspapers sometimes indicate subtle changes in
official policies and ideologies. Still, these are merely hints, and often too
vague to be interpreted correctly or expediently.
More direct intelligence has come with great difficulty. The number of
foreigners residing in North Korea remains very small. In the mid-1980s, there
were some 600-700, over 60% of whom were Russians and Chinese. Today,
foreigners remain closely watched and isolated. A foreigner cannot visit the
private home of a North Korean even briefly - only institutions which are
authorized to deal with foreigners can be visited. A short conversation on the
street is possible, but it should not be for too long.
North Koreans allowed to visit "foreigners' places" are carefully selected and
know what not to talk about. Foreigners - even those with Asian features -
stand out in North Korea and are carefully watched by a population trained to
remain on guard against intrusions of perfidious aliens. Trips outside
Pyongyang and a few designated areas remain strictly prohibited; when such a
trip is authorized, a foreigner is always accompanied by minders.
The only group of foreigners to enjoy some freedom of movement in North Korea
are Chinese - and these are often ethnic Koreans. Chinese authorities probably
have the best information about the state of affairs inside North Korea, but
their knowledge remains unknown to the outside world.
Despite all the difficulties, the world does know - or believes it knows -
something about Pyongyang politics. Until recently, the major source of news
and information about North Korea was Japan. This was largely determined by
Japan's some 600,000-strong ethnic Korean community.
Surprisingly, in the 1950s, most ethnic Koreans in Japan chose to side with
Pyongyang and even technically became North Korean citizens. Their association,
Chosen Soren, became a secretive state-within-the-state, a major source of
money and intelligence for North Korean authorities. Leading members of Chosen
Soren have always had privileged access to powerful figures in the Pyongyang
hierarchy. Understandably, some information was leaked.
However, as a rule most Japanese reports on North Korean politics are well of
the mark. In some cases "news" is planted by political interests, other times
false reports are honest mistakes. It is even suspected that in some cases
journalists have deliberately fabricated stories to increase sales of their
One of the major changes in recent years is that the border between China and
North Korea has become extremely porous. Since the mid-1990s, the Chinese
border areas have been major windows into the North. There is also a large
community of North Korean illegal migrants, whose numbers in the late 1990s
probably reached 250,000. Now there are some 30,000-40,000.
Some of these migrants make good money smuggling; others are employed at
Chinese construction sites and sweatshops. These migrants stay in touch with
their families in the North and the spread of mobile phones has facilitated the
instantaneous flow of information.
Such family ties are hardly akin to James Bond-style secrets, but they do
transmit handy low-level information about regulations on market trade or rules
concerning workers of local factories. Until some 10 years ago, even such basic
information usually remained unknown to outsiders.
Some groups have made use of the situation to provide North Korean news to the
world. Most prominent of these providers is the Buddhist charity group Good
Friends whose staff is permanently stationed in the border cities, where they
gather information from visiting North Koreans. The results are published in
regular newsletters that are partially translated into English. These
newsletters provide invaluable intelligence.
Among other groups using similar strategies, the DailyNK is an online newspaper
specializing in North Korean news and has correspondents in the Chinese border
cities of Dandong and Shenyang. Their reports are very useful in understanding
North Korean society, but seldom deal with high-level politics.
Finally, there is a large and fast growing community of North Korean defectors
in the South. In 2000, there were merely a thousand defectors, but today their
numbers have reached 15,000. These emigrants are remarkably different from the
defectors of Europe's Cold War era. People who fled from the former Soviet bloc
included intellectuals, journalists, scholars and writers. Most of the North
Korean defectors were impoverished farmers in the northern provinces. Many fled
their starving villages, spent a few years in China and then found their way to
the prosperous South. Prominent defectors are few and far between.
Still, all defectors possess useful information concerning daily life in North
Korean society. This understanding is the major improvement from one or two
decades ago. Observers are aware of how North Koreans make money, what they eat
and how much they pay for their groceries.
We should not forget, however, that our knowledge of North Korean politics
remains limited. In some cases we know names, but those names are merely empty
symbols, without much content. For example, there is much speculation about
Kim's successor. Will it be Chang Song-t'aek, Kim's brother-in-law? Or will Kim
Jong-il choose his firstborn son, Kim Jong-nam? Or perhaps his younger son, Kim
Jong-chol? And what about the current ladyfriend of the Dear Leader, a certain
Ms Kim Ok?
The fact is we know nothing about these people. We have no idea about their
affiliations, their experiences, or their vision for North Korea's future.
In the upcoming months, we are certain to hear more sensational news from North
Korea. In all probability it will come from Japan and with references to
unnamed sources. It is important not to take these reports too seriously.
Evaluating whether Kim has had another stroke, or if he's fit enough to scold
long-haired athletes, is at present a fool's errand.
It will take years before the world learns if any of these - or future -
reports have any links to reality. Before that time comes, it will pay to
remain carefully skeptical about news from North Korea.
Andrei Lankov is an associate professor in Kookmin University, Seoul, and
adjunct research fellow at the Research School of Pacifica and Asian Studies,
Australian National University. He graduated from Leningrad State University
with a PhD in Far Eastern history and China, with emphasis on Korea. He has
published books and articles on Korea and North Asia.