Webcast Recap

James Person, Woodrow Wilson Center; Robert Carlin, National Committee on North Korea; Dae-sook Suh, University of Hawaii; Jae-jung Suh, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies

How well do we know North Korea? Amid speculation on political succession, the question of Pyongyang's nuclear intentions and capabilities, and North Korean brinkmanship, how can we be certain that the conclusions we reach about the North's intentions are sound? How do we assess the quality of our intelligence sources, given the opacity of the regime? Can historical continuities be used to assess the future intentions of the Kim regime? Or given the difficulties with intelligence gathering, should we forego analysis about the North's intentions and focus instead on its capabilities as an objective indication of the threat posed by Pyongyang? On September 8, 2010, speakers at an event at the Wilson Center addressed these related questions.

According to James Person, project coordinator of the Wilson Center's North Korea International Documentation Project, an appreciation of history is vital to understanding North Korea's contemporary world view. For example, Person doubts speculation that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il travelled to China last month to seek Beijing's approval for the succession of his third son. While such a move conforms to Korea's historical position as a tributary to China during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897), Person noted that North Korean leaders see that period as a source of weakness that led to the annexation of Korea into the Japanese Empire in the early twentieth century. In fact, North Korea has been extremely cautious about protecting its sovereign prerogatives from Chinese interference since its "liberation" from Japan, and would not countenance Chinese advice on succession. Indeed, in 1980, China opposed the anointment of Kim Jong-Il as North Korea's next leader. North Korea's heightened sensitivity to issues of sovereignty in all aspects of its interaction with the outside world also makes Person doubt other speculation that North Korea seeks to reform and slowly integrate itself into the international community.

According to Robert Carlin, visiting scholar at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation, analysis and integration of knowledge on North Korea is a full-time profession. He therefore has little confidence in writing on the subject produced by journalists and commentators, who do not focus exclusively on the country. As for official intelligence, Carlin, who spent over 30 years in the U.S. State Department and Central Intelligence Agency as a Korea watcher, stated that we do not lack for sources on North Korea. Instead, Carlin sees the biggest problem with analysis on North Korea as an inability to think rationally about the country. Too often, he believes, analysts are subject to perception bias. That is, they are primed to see North Korea as a consistently evil and totally distant place, always tinged with a certain degree of strangeness. Carlin believes that the tendency to condemn every action undertaken by the North acts as an impediment to objective analysis about the country. Other problems include an intense focus on Pyongyang to the exclusion of developments in other areas of North Korea, and an "echo chamber" effect, whereby shaky hypotheses are confirmed not by evidence, but by repetition over time. Carlin recommended attention to history and objective analysis of sources that are not necessarily "on message" to get a more accurate picture of North Korea.

Indeed, Dae-Sook Suh, professor emeritus of the University of Hawaii, noted that widespread speculation that Kim Jong-Il has even named a successor should be viewed with a large dose of skepticism. Events in North Korea, such as the Korean Worker's Party Conference, which was meeting in Pyongyang just as Suh was speaking, are often framed in overseas media through the prism of succession. Nevertheless, Suh noted that succession in North Korea was never simply the task of the leader naming a follower. Kim Jong-Il, for example, was groomed for the position of leader for more than two decades before his father died, and began implementing his own policies only four years after the death. Suh notes that the successor question is therefore not a foregone conclusion, and that official North Korean propaganda even allows for the possibility that North Korea's next leader will not be related to Kim Jong-Il by blood. Suh thinks, however, that questions about the identity of the next Korean leader subsume those about the policy changes that are likely to occur after succession, which he believes are more important.

What then, of more contemporary events? Tensions on the Korean peninsula were heightened when the South Korean warship, the Cheonan,, broke in two and sank near the sea border with North Korea. Jae-Jung Suh, associate professor and director of Korean studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, questioned the conclusions of a recent report by the Joint Civilian-Military Investigation Group—a team of 50 military and scientific experts from South Korea and support teams from Australia, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States—that the Cheonan had been destroyed by a North Korean torpedo. While by his own admission he has little scientific training, Suh believes that enough questions can be raised about the timing and position of the explosion, and about the bubble effect, shock wave, and fragments that would occur as the result of such an explosion, to doubt the official version of events.

By Bryce Wakefield
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program