By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 20, 2010; A09
SEOUL - Hoping to better predict when North Korea might collapse, South Korea is spending $1.6 million to come up with a formula that measures the stability of the world's hardest-to-measure country.
The formula will take into account political loyalty in the military, recent economic output, even the ups and downs of leader Kim Jong Il's health - all despite a lack of verifiable information on any of those factors.
"The major problem with this is the lack of data," said a senior government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the project, known as the North Korea Situation Index, is underway.
When the Unification Ministry finalizes the index, its assessment - probably expressed as a single number, the official said - will represent an attempt to introduce some certitude into the increasingly polarized debate about the North's life expectancy.
Predicting the date of the reclusive state's demise has long been a favorite parlor game among policymakers in Seoul and Washington, but a year of significant developments - with North Korea unleashing several military provocations, drawing closer to China and all but formalizing a hereditary power transfer - has somehow bolstered two opposing views. Where some see evidence of a nation in disarray, others see a nation stronger than it has been in years.
"Unification is drawing nearer," South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said last week of the state of affairs on the peninsula, adding that North Korea's control of its people is unsustainable.
"That's either wishful thinking or irresponsible," said former foreign minister and opposition member Song Min-soon. "There are no grounds to say that. Even in the drastic case, like Kim Jong Il dying tomorrow, the succession has been paved, and I do not think the regime will collapse."
Veteran analysts often describe North Korea as a paradox - and a poor target for statistical analysis. Just enough information trickles out that experts and officials can form whatever opinions they please. A year ago, for instance, Pyongyang authorized a drastic currency revaluation that wiped out many citizens' savings. Some experts now say that mistake fomented still-bubbling dissent. Others, noting that it did not cause an uprising, say it merely demonstrated the extent of Pyongyang's social control.
A year ago, the North had no anointed heir set to take over should Kim die. Now it does - except that Kim Jong Eun is 27 or 28 and might not be ready.
And unlike a year ago, U.S. visitors to Pyongyang are coming away impressed, noting widespread electricity, bustling markets and busier-than-usual streets. North Korea might, however, be focusing its efforts on its capital as it prepares to celebrate the 100-year anniversary in 2012 of the birth of founder Kim Il Sung.
"North Korea is the land of contradicting pictures," said Katy Oh Hassig, a North Korea specialist at the Institute for Defense Analyses, which conducts research for the Pentagon. "It's both stable and instable. It is stable in the sense that with the military, the elites, there's still an imposed level of control. But it's unstable because of the level of frustration among ordinary people - not spoken or expressed, but it's brewing beneath the surface."
Even those working to develop the Situation Index admit that measuring North Korea's stability involves more guesswork than science. According to the senior official, much of the input comes from non-quantitative sources, such as interviews with recent defectors or anecdotal accounts of North Korean political dissent.
Then there is the challenge of determining the state of Kim Jong Il's health, among the biggest variables in assessing the North's stability. Diplomatic cables released in recent weeks by the WikiLeaks Web site describe the 68-year-old as a chain smoker and a recreational drug user. The senior official said that in an effort to measure Kim's health, South Korea keeps track of his field trips to factories and military bases. This year, he has made 153 on-the-spot visits - a supposed sign of stable health.
The South also analyzes photos and video of Kim, such as those taken during an Oct. 10 parade to mark the 65th anniversary of the Workers' Party, sometimes submitting the footage to its own team of doctors. During the parade, Kim was seen limping on his left leg, evidence of an August 2008 stroke. But he was also seen standing - and he had been out late at a public festival the night before.
North Korea has long outlasted predictions of its demise. After Kim Il Sung's death in 1994, South Korean diplomats told the United States that North Korea would collapse within two years. A year later, Washington-based expert Nicholas Eberstadt, voicing a widespread opinion, wrote, "There is no reason at present to expect a reign by Kim Jong Il to be either stable or long."
"The whole question about predicting or foreseeing revolutions or regime changes is, at best, an art - and never has been a science," Eberstadt now says. "But there's always a desire on the part of policymakers to know the unknowable, and sometimes they'll pay big bucks to learn the unknowable."
Special correspondent Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.