If you're confused by the reports coming out of North Korea, you're probably not alone. Take the recent slew of conflicting reports about the health of the nation's Dear Leader. U.S. CALLS KIM JONG IL'S HEALTH A 'CONCERN,' ran one headline. The body of the story, quoting a senior U.S. official who was himself referring to reports from other unnamed officials in Seoul, alluded to a "monthlong disappearance" by Kim and noted that the North Korean dictator suffers "from advanced diabetes and heart disease as well as high blood pressure." Around the same time, another analysis claimed that Kim had recovered from these "chronic diseases." The report, which based its account on the usual anonymous senior officials in Seoul and obscure North Korea wonks, also asserted confidently, that "intelligence" in the hands of the South Korean government indicates that Kim will choose his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, as his successor.
So what are we to think? Does that mean that everything we read about North Korea is garbage pretending to be authoritative truth? This sort of conundrum is par for the course for anyone who has spent time studying the goings-on at the top of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, as the North prefers to call itself. The ironic fact of the matter is that we know far more about North Korea than ever before. China and South Korea have both deepened their ties with the Hermit Kingdom in recent years, and that means that much more information is flowing out as well as in. A steady stream of defectors has provided us with often-elaborate detail about the country in general. And there's even a small—exceedingly small—population of foreigners who deal with the North on a regular basis. All of this helps us to build up our picture of what's going on in the country.
Yet when it comes to the most important part of the story—the motives and intentions of North Korea's government—it's always best to be skeptical. Andrei Lankov, a Seoul-based Russian academic who has studied the North for decades, says that he refuses to comment when asked by journalists about government reshuffles or coup rumors in Pyongyang. Such reports occasionally do end up getting confirmed by events, he concedes, but estimates that they are successful less than 20 percent of the time. (In other words, you'd usually be much better off judging the account's veracity by flipping a coin.) Lankov notes that the
Kim regime won't even publish the precise number of members in the ruling communist party, much less basic stats on the economy. He describes it as by far the world's most secretive state—far more so than even the old U.S.S.R., where it was common for intellectuals to discuss political topics when they knew they were in like-minded company. In North Korea, by contrast, "People are terrified to death to discuss anything political." And that, he says, is because everything political ultimately comes down to the Kim family, which holds the power of instant life or death over every North Korean—and isn't afraid to use it, as countless tales of the regime's brutality attest. For that reason, Lankov argues, "The most explosive topic, the one that is never discussed, is the topic of succession."
The result is a level of mystery that seems almost calculated to drive journalists into a frenzy. Confronted with such opacity, it's hard to resist the temptation to show off even the slightest scrap of seemingly revelatory information garnered from some super-secret privileged source. In November 2004, the Russian news agency Tass reported that official portraits of Kim Jong Il were being taken down in North Korean diplomatic representations and official buildings. Could it be that Kim was on the way out? Respected news outlets jumped on the story, in some cases adding details culled from Chinese or Korean newspapers suggesting that the Dear Leader's days were numbered. It hardly needs adding that he— and his portraits—remain firmly in place today.
Applying a bit more common sense might not be a bad thing. But the fact is that that's far easier said than done. In April 2004, for example, a tremendous explosion took place in the train station in the North Korean city of Ryongchon, killing hundreds of people and rendering thousands more homeless. It happened just hours after Kim's personal train had passed through the same station, spawning fervid speculation about a possible assassination attempt. According to one version the blast was triggered by a mobile phone—a detail that gained credibility a few months later, when the North Korean authorities pulled the plug on the country's 18-month-old cell phone program. Service has never been restored.
Sounds convincing. Yet consider for a moment the important questions left unanswered by this version of events. If the explosion was being triggered remotely, why did the presumed conspirators wait for hours after Kim's passage to send the signal? And why did they decide to kill hundreds of innocents in the process? In retrospect, virtually everything about this incident is still up for grabs. The fact that the North Korean government released casualty figures was actually hailed by some commentators as evidence of North Korea-style glasnost. Suffice it to say that we are still waiting for CNN to open its first Pyongyang bureau. (Skeptics note that the city's proximity to the Chinese border meant that news of the explosion was bound to get out anyway.) In the wake of the disaster one British journalist confidently asserted that North Korea was becoming "more open to international help"—not that that stopped Pyongyang from announcing that it was about to start expelling international aid organizations a year later. And so it goes.
Western intelligence agencies also have a strikingly poor record when it comes to the country. No one in Washington or London predicted the North's invasion of the South in 1950. The Clinton administration signed an agreement that would have supposedly rid the North of its plutonium-based nuclear-weapons program back in 1994—and then delayed fulfilling its own part of the deal because the CIA was assuring it of the North's imminent collapse. (The experts are still sparring over whether the resulting failure of the Agreed Framework led inexorably to the North's first nuclear test last autumn.) In 2002 the Bush administration announced that North Korea had suddenly admitted, in negotiations, its pursuit of a hitherto secret parallel nuclear weapons program based on highly enriched uranium—leading Washington to break off talks in indignation. In recent months, though, administration officials—their reputation already severely tarnished by the Iraq WMD intelligence scandal—have been forced to acknowledge that they can't tell for sure whether the North Koreans still have such a program under way.
Grounds for despair? No, just for a measure of humility. Journalists—and governments—need to do a better job of admitting to the public that any information about North Korea's leadership is to be regarded with profound skepticism. To be sure, a few privileged insiders—former Kim employees, a kidnapped film director—have come forth to tell their stories. That's how we know, for example, details of the Dear Leader's luxury-loving ways. Yet there have been almost no defectors from the upper ranks of the leadership who have been willing to reveal significant details about what makes the regime tick—presumably for fear of retribution against them or their families. Perhaps it's just hard for many of us, wallowing in an age of instant messaging and tell-all blogs, to believe that there are limits to what we can know about other human beings. Consider, for example, this revealing incident involving a North Korean worker (who thus almost certainly doubles as an employee of the North Korean security service) at a European embassy in Pyongyang. The worker was shocked when her brother showed up one day to apply for a visa, because she had no idea that her brother had the right to travel abroad. He, by contrast, had no idea that his sister worked in a foreign embassy. In that respect, perhaps, North Korea can serve as a useful cautionary tale. Is it hard to know what's going on at the top? "It's not just hard," says Andrei Lankov. "It's impossible."