A historic moment for N. Korea watchers
Monday, September 27, 2010; 2:50 AM
SEOUL - They're called the North Korea watchers: a group of men who devote their lives to studying every satellite image for traces of nuclear activity, every photo for clues about Kim Jong Il's precarious health and every official disclosure for hints of a changing of the guard in Pyongyang.
But North Korea is the nation that refuses to be watched, and its secrecy shows. A Seoul-based expert, Park Hyeong-jung, decided this year to examine 10 years of North Korea-related analysis. He will soon publish a paper about "just how terrible our research and predictions are."
Nonetheless, weeks like this one - when Pyongyang promises something historic - leave outside analysts with the mandateto make bold pronouncements about North Korea's future, even if they're only making educated guesses.
On Tuesday, North Korea will hold a Workers' Party conference, its biggest political meeting in 30 years. Many experts in Seoul and Washington believe that North Korea will designate Kim Jong Il's youngest son, Kim Jong Eun, as the heir. The North Korea watchers will then tell the world what it means, and what to think about it.
At this point, North Korea watchers no longer debate the end goal of Kim Jong Il's succession plan: They believe that Kim Jong Eun has been picked, and that the only question is to what extent this conference will formalize his rise. Experts, explaining their conviction, mention recent propaganda campaigns in Pyongyang, which focus on the "Young General." During a recent trip to China, they point out, Kim Jong Il spoke of the "rising generation."
The watchers - a collection of academics, researchers and former officials - generally acknowledge the inherent absurdity of their jobs. Washington-based economist Nicholas Eberstadt describes a profound North Korean information seal that leaves "so-called experts [to] plausibly spin out diametrically opposite interpretations of the same information."
By some estimates, Seoul has several dozen such experts who earn their living by studying North Korea. That population hits triple digits if you include government analysts, and it climbs higher still if you include researchers in Beijing, Tokyo and Washington.
Among the Seoul-based experts, some state their opinions as near-fact. Some say upfront that they know nothing with certainty. At least half a dozen are writing succession-related books, soon to hit the market. Almost every expert has off-the-record opinions on his peers, describing them (varyingly) as Pyongyang apologists or mouthpieces for South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.
This week, they will find out who among them was right about what could be one of the most important moments in North Korean history.
"This [conference] is a critical moment, and I'm excited," said Cheong Seong-chang, a widely quoted expert at the Sejong Institute who predicted in January 2009 that Kim Jong Eun would become North Korea's designated successor. "It will be revealed if my opinions and research are correct. But predictions can go very wrong. If you're 70 or 80 percent correct, it's very high. Even over 50 percent is good."
Sometimes, careers are built around incorrect predictions. Seoul-based historian Andrei Lankov spent the early 1990s anticipating something that hasn't happened. In his 30s at the time - "just a beginner," Lankov recalled - he felt certain that North Korea would collapse after leader Kim Il Sung's death. He planned his life around it. He craved the firsthand research that North Korea's collapse would allow. He called it his "top academic ambition" to enter the nation that operated like a vault, turning the imagined into the tactile. He's still waiting.
Lankov speaks with unusual frankness about the limitations of his knowledge, even though he attended college in Pyongyang in the mid-1980s. (He was later blacklisted from reentry for 20 years, having been accused by Pyongyang of operating as a South Korean spy.)