What do we know about Kim Jong-il and North Korea?

By Sean Maguire
June 29, 2009

Former U.S. defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s attempts to be philosophical about ‘known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’ gave him a reputation for slipperiness and cant. The phrases uttered in 2002 to explain the military’s failure to improve security in Afghanistan have passed into folklore, alongside such gems as ’stuff happens,’ which was his explanation for the looting that followed the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003.

The ‘known unknown’ concept is a more useful tool in journalism than you would think from the derision heaped on Rumsfeld by reporters. As journalists we spend our time uncovering facts, reporting data, breaking news and offering insights into the meaning of events. We rarely stop to contemplate what we do not know, what we cannot know and what impact that ignorance has in shaping perceptions.

No place is more opaque, more secretive and more fiendishly difficult to intepret than North Korea. It is inaccessible, its leader does not give interviews and it rattles the nuclear sabre to a timetable and for a purpose we can only guess at. As we tremble with fear at the thought of Pyongyang developing an atomic arms capability, it is instructive to remind ourselves how thoroughly our interpretation of the North’s behaviour is overlaid with our own projections and assumptions. We build our framework of expectations on the shaky soil of past experience, historical parallels and a paucity of real, contemporary detail on how North Koreans think and how they live.

On a recent trip to north-east Asia it struck me how challenging it is to peer over the formidable wall that the North has erected around itself. Divining the real distribution of power around Kim Jong-il and extrapolating from it his next steps has been compared to Cold War Kremlinology,  the part-art, part-science process of guessing how the Soviet Union was being run. It is the nature of tightly-knit elites that they are hard to fathom. Nobody credible has been able to claim they spotted in advance that Mikhail Gorbachev would be the successor to Konstantin Chernenko in 1985.  So, add to Soviet-style secrecy North Korea’s clan system and dynastic tradition, and you have a recipe for inpenetrability.  Kim Jong-il’s third and youngest son, Kim Jong-un, is now ‘widely accepted’ as the heir presumptive to his ailing father. But might the flimsily-sourced stories on the succession have been solidified into ‘fact’ by self-reinforcing group-think?

Japanese media reported that the Swiss educated Jong-un, thought to be 25-years-old, visited China earlier in June to introduce himself to the leaders of North Korea’s only real ally. The Chinese haven’t corroborated that and I got a point blank refusal to confirm it from South Korea’s unification minister when I posed the question this week. (The FT had the most recent story on it, adding detail on itinerary and who was chaperoning the youngster, again sourced to unnamed officials.) It’s a sensitive issue, since electronic surveillance and espionage, too sensitive to admit to, might actually have confirmed to Seoul and Washington that Jong-un had made that journey. Perhaps that makes it an example of an unknown known.

So how do we get information about the North? Few journalists get visas and when they do their interactions with ordinary Koreans take place via handlers whose first loyalty is to their state, not the truth. A few diplomats report on the realities of life in the desperately poor North. A blurred picture emerges of a socialist state where the populace must fend for themselves; government food distribution has all but been abandoned and an informal structure of markets and suitcase trading of Chinese goods provides most of the nourishment and economic activity.  A few NGOs and tourists trickle through. South Korea monitors everything the North says about itself and meticulously reads between the lines to assess the ebbs and flows of power. Scholars parse the North’s internal propaganda to understand how the Kims sustain their leadership. A taste of its appeal to patriotism, disdain of outsiders, selective rendering of history and vilification of the South leaves non-partisans dizzy, but it has served for years to consolidate the ruling class’s grip on power.

How useful is the information given by what some call defectors but which others broadly consider economic migrants, fleeing the poverty of the North for the perils of Chinese human trafficking networks in the hope an aid group will lead them to the South via third countries? The South builds a picture by debriefing them, but the insights are not of those close to Pyongyang’s decision-making.

Most intriguing now is how the North’s story to its own people may have to change as the information cordon around the country frays. The disparity between reality and internal rhetoric cannot grow too far apart, it is suggested, because North Koreans are getting information via DVDs smuggled across their borders, visiting traders, informal networks and other unofficial sources. North Koreans will have heard from abroad the talk of who will rule them next. At home their media has made no mention of the Dear Leader ever being anything but a bachelor, never mind a father.  Can that gap persist without credibility vanishing? Will North Korea’s official media have to bring forward their launch campaign for the next Kim? How ironic if the unknowability of the North begins to be undone from the inside thanks to the unknowingness of outsiders.

11 comments

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Very basic information about NK. But well written.

Posted by annonymous | Report as abusive

On a recent trip to north-east Asia it struck me how challenging it is to peer over the formidable wall that the North has erected around itself. Divining the real distribution of power around Kim Jong-il and extrapolating from it his next steps has been

It’s better not to know him than to. Kim is an unpredictable man who hand picked his 26 year-old son to succeed his tyranny perhaps for another half a century, with no prospect for democracy in DPRK. Hunger and starvation are still everywhere despite NK claims itself a nuclear power. Kim should surrender all nukes in exchange for food, oil and international aid.

Posted by Yamayoko | Report as abusive

This article is superb.Now,i am able to understand what is happening in North Korea.Major communist countries behavior is more or less like North Korea.World bodies should see that,North Korea should not trouble to her neighbor and to rest of the world.I think that,if China uses her relationship with North Korea can bring her policies on nuclear controls.

Very good article, very well written. Thank you

Posted by Lyndon Jacak | Report as abusive

North Korea’s secretive regime is lurching from one crisis to the next. Strong-arm tactics ensure that power is passed on from father to son with secrecy being the operative word! The worrying fact is that the country is arming itself to the hilt threatening the very stability of the region. Should other nations just look on in sheer amazement and fear? Or could North Korea be reined in by United Nations sanctions? Or a carrot and stick policy by the United States, Russia and China? Or have the great powers lost their teeth?

North Korea will eventually implode, similarly to the Soviet Union.Once Kim dies, his son will have no protection. The ruling military elite may stage a coup, which will bring about a junta. There will be chaos and violence, as competing clans are suppressed. Refugees will stream across the borders, most notably into China. Surrounded by crises, the remaining military elites will go to the international community for help, especially China and perhaps the ROK, in order to preserve some of their power and ensure their survival. This will be the beginning of reunification, with some similarities with the East & West German reunification. Markets will begin to open up, and we will finally know concretely what has been happening behind the Asian Curtain.

Posted by Greg | Report as abusive

If Communist China is the only real ally of North Korea, it begs the question -why has Beijing allowed the situation to descend to this dangerous level?A cynic might argue that it serves to commit Western intelligence,ground & naval capabilities and the expense to maintain them in one theater thereby giving the Communist Chinese unfettered naval access to choke points that were previously stalked by Soviet denizens.

It’s better not to know him than to. Kim is an unpredictable man who hand picked his 26 year-old son to succeed his tyranny perhaps for another half a century

Western intelligence,ground & naval capabilities and the expense to maintain them in one theater thereby giving the Communist Chinese unfettered naval access to choke points that were previously stalked by Soviet denizens.???o co chodzi?

Nicely written.

Posted by Fiverr | Report as abusive