Academia

North Korea: Piercing the Veil of the Mysterious East

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An amusing bit of insight into the unexpert world of experts when it comes to North Korea as an expected succession plan for that nation of absurd tyranny and deep mystery is on the eve of announcement, from today's Washington Post:

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."…

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….

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 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!"….

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.)…

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."

The article does not get into the world of state-sponsored espionage when it comes to North Korea, at least not explicitly. I'd love to see more similarly honest articles about the rigor and predictive use of that part of the foreign policy establishment.