A historic moment for N. Korea watchers

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.)

Some topics, of course, Lankov knows quite well. He knows the prices, more or less, of basic food commodities. He knows about changes in attitudes among the people, based on interviews with defectors. He knows about history from the 1940s and '50s, based on declassified documents. A commentator with breathless enthusiasm, he gladly speaks about any of these subjects - adding tangents about the history of Korean cattle, or elevators - for all willing to listen. But he doesn't know much about the topics he's asked about most frequently: political factions, power struggles, succession strategy, Kim Jong Il's thinking.

Lankov recently received a call from a Seoul-based diplomat representing a "small country - but I won't name it," he said. The diplomat wanted advice. He'd been asked to write a psychological profile, cabled to his home government, of presumed heir Kim Jong Eun.

"Do you realize what you're asking about?" Lankov recalled telling the diplomat. "We know nothing about him but the approximate year of his birth!"

Some days, Lankov receives 20 media requests. He also writes North Korea analysis papers in Korean, Russian and English. Two weeks ago, he received a grant allowing him the resources to interview between 500 and 700 North Korean defectors - the starting point for a study of economic change in one North Korean town. This research represents the alternative to an ambition unfulfilled.

"North Korea will probably collapse in my lifetime," Lankov said, "but maybe two or three decades from now, and I'll be too old to do any quality first-hand research."

North Korea watchers depend on information-gathering strategies that almost always have a downside. Some look to newspapers and official documents from Pyongyang, hoping to filter out the misinformation. Some seek out the notorious rumor-mill towns along the China-North Korea border. Some rely on defectors, who may hold extreme views of their native country. Some cultivate cozy relationships with South Korean intelligence officials.

"We do not know what is real,'' said Yun Dukmin, a professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security.

Or rather, experts learn what is real several years after the fact. Park, compiling the research about erroneous predictions, believes that legitimate insight arrives in South Korea and China roughly three or four years too late.

This, he said, partly explains why North Korea watchers needed so long to call attention to the famine in the early 1990s.

Searching for egregious errors from the last 10 years, Park has discovered that it doesn't take much searching at all. In 2001, some still believed that Kim Jong Il had just two sons. (He has three.)

In 2003, Hwang Jang Yop, the highest-profile North Korean defector, declared that Kim Jong Chul, not Kim Jong Eun, would be his father's succesor. Even in 2007, six years after an arrest that led to Kim Jong Nam's exile, some watchers still believed that the family's eldest son had a shot as the heir.

Park believes his research into the North Korea watchers' analysis could serve as an important reminder: "Our expert community," Park said, "should be more cautious."

Special correspondent Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.

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