Impenetrable North Korea
The last two weeks were quite an annoying experience for the present author in one regard: people asked questions which have no answers, questions about personal politics in Pyongyang.
It is understandable that journalists and diplomats want to know about relations between Jang Song-thaek and Ri Yong-ho, two top advisers to Kim Jong-un, or, say, about Jang’s attitude to the economic reforms. Alas, such questions cannot really be answered.
Both the general public and political decision makers feel themselves enlightened when they are told about factions, power rivalry, clashes of personal ambition and complicated political intrigues. When it comes to the vast majority of countries across the globe, such stuff indeed comprises the mainstay of political reporting. But North Korea is different.
A small secret of North Korean watchers: we, the outsiders, don’t know much about what is happening in the corridors of power in Pyongyang. Frankly, most of the time we are entirely ignorant, and a very large part of what is reported in the media is based on unreliable hearsay.
A few years ago, a senior Russian diplomat told me of how he visited a special cemetery in Pyongyang which serves as final resting place for North Korea’s top officials. The tombstones normally mention the highest positions the deceased ever had. The diplomat in question, who has spent 30 years going in and out of Pyongyang, said that after such an excursion he realized: even the Soviet embassy, arguably the best informed of all foreign missions in Pyongyang in the 1980s, had no clue about two-thirds of the people who held key positions in the North Korean bureaucracy of that period.
Let’s have a look at a more recent example. Over the last few years, we have seen a tidal wave of speculation about Kim Jong-un who suddenly appeared in the Korean political scene in early 2010. To get a better understanding of the relevance and quality of such discussion, one must keep in mind that for roughly a year, its participants had no idea how to spell the name of the younger Kim in Korean! Needless to say, the lack of knowledge about the candidate’s name did not prevent analysts from speculating about his future policies and his personality traits.
What is the reason of our ignorance? It is often forgotten that the North Korean state is a very special place, much different from the Soviet Union and the Eastern Europe of the 1960s and 1970s.
First of all, the North Korean system is dead serious about secrecy ― and almost everything is a secret in North Korea. No economic statistics have been published since the early 1960s. Even the most obvious parts of daily lives are never mentioned in the official media or press ― for example, no avid reader of North Korean newspapers or fiction would ever get a clue that this country lived under a rationing system from the late 1950s to the mid-1990s.
The references to the rationing system were a taboo ― like many other things, with everything related to the political class and the ruling family being the best guarded secret.
Second, North Korea is a dangerous place. In the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, common people could privately talk about politics ― at least after the death of Stalin in 1953. They could exchange rumors about the views and inclinations of officials, they even exchanged political jokes. None of this is possible in North Korea yet. People know that talking politics is deadly dangerous and even if they somehow come across insider knowledge, they are not inclined to share it with their families, friends or co-workers.
Third, foreigners remain completely isolated from North Koreans. In Moscow or Warsaw of the 1970s, foreign students, journalists and spies could visit private houses and partake in discussions of the local intelligentsia. Since the intelligentsia was quite eager to share rumors and stories among themselves, foreigners could also learn things.
Needless to say, most of such houses were watched and infiltrated by the security services, but this could and did not stop such exchanges completely. This is not the case in North Korea, where locals are afraid to interact with foreigners and where a private visit to a North Korean’s house is virtually unthinkable.
Most of the news and reports about North Korea’s high politics are based on hearsay. This does not mean that these reports are always wrong, but it does mean that they all are highly unreliable.
This does not mean that, as is often said, ``We don’t know anything about North Korea.” Actually we know a lot about some areas of North Korean life. That said though, North Korean high politics is not one of such areas ― to the great disappointment of newspaper editors, foreign ministers and intelligence service chiefs.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at email@example.com.