Six Mysteries of North Korea’s Succession Drama

As Kim Jong Il starts looking for the exit, false predictions and wild rumors abound. Need some help sorting through them?

North Korea watchers have been sitting on the edge of their seats for almost a week, waiting for the highly anticipated conference of the ruling Workers' Party -- the first in 44 years. Prognosticators are already in high gear, churning out not only predictions about its outcome -- Kim Jong Il's youngest son and heir apparent, Kim Jong Un, will somehow be anointed as the next leader of North Korea -- but also trying to figure out whether and why the meeting seems to have been delayed even though all they have to go on is a North Korean statement that it would be held in "early September."

What is distressing for both of us as former U.S. policymakers and long-time observers of North Korea is that recent public commentary on the party conference and other important events is mostly based on gossip, rumor, unconfirmed reports, or uninformed speculation. The pervasiveness of this analysis distorts the public debate over the real challenges posed by North Korea and the policies needed to cope with that threat. Six of the most egregious analytical missteps are as follows.

The Political Succession: Uphill Battle or Smooth Sailing?

Yogi Berra's famous observation -- "it's déjà vu all over again" -- could well describe recent analysis of the succession. There was a lot of goofy reporting about Kim Jong Il during the last power transition in the 1980s and 90s, following the death of his father, Kim Il Sung -- his erratic personality, his weak political base, and most of all, his likely short reign. For example, a poll of former South Korean intelligence officials found a majority believed Kim would only last months in the job. For a long time, we knew virtually nothing about him or the process by which he was being groomed, and therefore were primed to jump on any and all tidbits fed to us from dubious sources.

Sound familiar? Today, there is not a shred of evidence to back up talk about a succession "struggle." All we know -- or think we might know -- is that there is a transition underway. We don't know for sure when it began, but there are some signs that it may have been in the works several years before August 2008, when Kim disappeared for months due to unspecified medical problems. Speculation that the process is fragile because it has been "rushed" and that the successor is not "ready" has no basis in fact. We do not even know how far along the process is, or what the next step might be.

Does that mean the succession will move forward smoothly? Not necessarily. Perhaps the wisest thing to do is to set out a working hypothesis and then refine it as facts drift in. If Kim Jong Il's grip on power remains firm, it is highly unlikely that anyone will challenge his choice. The only way for anyone in Pyongyang's inner circle to put a spanner in the works will be ever so subtly to show Kim that his son is not up to the job, and then leave it to him to decide that he needs to look for someone else.

North Korea: Teetering on the Brink or Inching Forward?

A supporting narrative, purveyed by a thriving industry of South Korean-based media is (radios and blogs) that North Korea is on the brink of collapse. This is reflected in the constant reporting chiefly about economic missteps but also severe food shortages. However, anyone who takes the time to carefully examine the facts will discover there is no good evidence pointing to a situation in the North so dire economically, or so disjointed politically.

For example, that the North's currency redenomination of late last year was "botched" and left lasting resentment toward Pyongyang has by now been repeated publicly so many times that many observers have convinced themselves that Kim Jong Il's regime is living on borrowed time.

We strongly doubt that is the case. Whatever mistakes the regime made in putting together or implementing the currency redenomination, not more than a couple of months passed before it realized this policy was a loser and threw it overboard. Was there lasting damage to the regime's grip on power from this episode, or is it just another bump in a never-very-smooth economic road receding in the rearview mirror? In spite of all the breathless analysis, only one thing is clear: No one really knows.

Kim Jong Il: Fading Fast or Recovering Stroke Victim?

The health of the 68-year old Kim -- bad and getting worse -- has been cited as the cause of everything from North Korea's 2009 nuclear and missile tests to a possible collapse of the country to, on a more mundane level, the "delay" of the party conference. No doubt there is a lot of chatter in intelligence circles about Kim's health, most of it probably unreliable, as this would be among the most closely guarded of secrets in a regime that is very good at keeping them.

What we can see, and what we know from those outsiders who have met with Kim recently, is that he is active, in control of his faculties, lucid, and on top of his brief. His frequent tours of North Korea plus two recent trips to China are consistent with this conclusion. Moreover, video clips suggest that Kim has enjoyed at least a partial recovery following a course of rehabilitation therapy and other treatment. However, as one medical doctor observes on the 38 North website, "even for patients without purported risk factors such as diabetes, smoking, apathy, and post-stroke depression" the "survival rates at five years are little better than 35-40 percent, with over half of such patients becoming significantly disabled."

While it is true that the bell will someday toll for each of us, including Kim, without access to his medical chart, it is a bad idea for political analysts to assume failing health is driving political decisions. The health of a leader is always a factor and a concern, but there is a tendency on the part of outsiders to overcompensate in the case of a secretive regime like North Korea's.

Kim Jong Un: Unfit to Rule or Man of Mystery?

Reports labeling the 20-something Kim Jong Un as "the idiot son" -- unstable, responsible for dangerous acts such as the sinking of the Cheonan, and obsessed with Jean Claude Van Damme -- sound familiar. Lunging at odd tidbits of dubious information is a tried and true practice employed by analysts during North Korean leadership transitions. Speculation from people who misjudged Kim Jong Il's personality, character, ability, and how long he would last was rampant before and after he took power.

Recent articles citing the vague memories of classmates who knew the younger Kim years ago in Switzerland or analysis of old film clips of him at a school event (recently employed by a major Japanese newspaper) suggest we are going down this same path for the same reasons again. What is really important is exactly what we cannot yet see -- the strength of his personality, his skill in manipulating people, his ability to use the levers of power, and his intellect.

Kim Jong Il's Latest Visit to China: Supplicant or Geostrategic Magician?

North Korean and Chinese leaders have a long, long history of visiting each other. These visits are important, but there is a tendency to overanalyze the significance of any single trip. That has certainly been the case with Kim's recent trip to China, where analysts parsed official communiqués and pontificated about what they saw as Kim's failure to secure significant economic aid on his visit. Yes, for him to go twice in four months appears unusual and worth noting, but there are too many unknowns about the planning to throw analytical caution to the winds.

The North Koreans do not trust the Chinese any farther than they can throw them, a feeling that is fully reciprocated. Geography trumps such emotions, however, and the two countries by now know how to keep things on an even keel, even when smiling at each other through pursed lips and gritted teeth. Whenever there is a rocky period, both sides know very well that it will pass, that they will patch things up and put relations back on track ... until the next rocky period.

Kim knows what he needs from China, and the Chinese know what he most wants -- an understanding that they will not interfere in North Korean internal affairs and will undercut U.S. and South Korean efforts (real or perceived) to destabilize the North. Of course, because China is by far the North's largest trading partner, the two leaders (or their retinues) have had extensive discussions about practical economic matters, all the more important given Beijing's new emphasis on developing the northeast provinces, and North Korea's wariness of Washington's fixation with sanctions.

Jimmy Carter's Trip to Pyongyang: Mission Accomplished or Snubbed President?

Because President Carter didn't meet Kim Jong Il, his trip to Pyongyang, according to one pundit, was "worse than a slap to the face; it's basically giving the middle finger to the United States." That may be true or it may not.

For one thing, logistics and schedules explain more about world events than people realize. The most mundane things -- appointment calendars and the weather -- sometimes have as profound an influence as the most clever political calculations. For that reason, to make an informed judgment, one probably needs to know when Kim Jong Il's trip to China was put in motion, when plans were finalized, how much the dates were driven by Chinese leadership schedules, even whether the fact that there are only three railway bridges between North Korea and China, and that one of them was closed due to flooding, influenced decisions on venue and timing.

One close observer, former U.S. ambassador to Seoul Donald Gregg, has recently said in the International Herald Tribune that Carter knew before he left that he would not meet Kim. If true, all the more reason to drop the notion that this was a case of a former U.S. president being jilted at the altar. This much we know: His visit secured the release of an American citizen in trouble. We can't, however, be sure what Carter learned from his discussions with other North Korean officials. But it is worth noting the former president met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton upon his return.

Of course, any foreign-policy analyst knows the value of asking the right questions. But that's an art form that seems to have been lost in the case of North Korea. If there is one lesson that the two of us have learned over the past 15 years in thinking about how to deal with Pyongyang, it has been the necessity of examining and reexamining accepted wisdom. Unfortunately, that's a lesson that has to be learned over and over again in regards to the North.

AFP/AFP/Getty Images


Call Off the Great Game

It's time to stop seeing the South Caucasus as a geopolitical chessboard.

Twenty years after the end of the Soviet Union, news from the South Caucasus is bleak. The region's two longest borders, which stretch between Armenia and Azerbaijan and between Georgia and Russia, remain wholly or partially shut. Corrupt bureaucrats make even the nominally open borders closed to free trade.  Three de facto statelets - Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh -- exist in a twilight zone, separate from their Soviet-era "parents," Georgia and Azerbaijan, but not quite sovereign states either. Hundreds of thousands of refugees remain displaced by war. Poverty and unemployment are endemic. Millions work away from home as migrant workers, mainly in Russia. Both locals and outsiders share the blame for creating this miserable picture.

How do outsiders share responsibility? We are at fault, I believe, because our faulty perceptions and interpretations have helped make bad local politics worse. I identify three dangerous mirages -- misguided approaches to this region that reverberate in decidedly unhelpful ways.

The first mirage may be the oldest: the notion that the region is a "Great Chessboard" where the big powers push the locals around like pawns to serve their own goals. That is not what actually happens. In actual fact, however the geopolitical weather changes, the locals always manage to manipulate the outside powers at least as much as the other way round.

In the 21st century the Caucasus is still the Caucasus, in all its complexity and variety -- not an assimilated province of Russia, Turkey, or Iran. The peoples of the Caucasus may be too weak to prosper, but they remain strong enough to withstand fading into their bigger neighbors. You could call it a "balance of insecurity." Over the course of history, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and Georgians, as well as the region's other smaller ethnic groups, have all persistently survived invasion and resisted assimilation. It's true the price of survival has come in the form of Faustian pacts with other Great Powers, in which the Azerbaijanis allied themselves with Turks and British; Georgians with Germans and British; Armenians, Abkhaz and Ossetians with Russians.

The outside power that has most determined the fate of the region over the last century has been Soviet Russia, which for a period of time did not so much resolve the contradictions of the Caucasus as smother them. Beginning in 1920, the region was under the Soviets' suffocating authoritarian rule. When Soviet power waned in the late Gorbachev period, the pendulum swung again. The years 1919 and 1991 bore many similarities; Abkhaz and Ossetians sought Russian assistance against what they saw to be a Georgian nationalist threat, while newly independent Georgia looked to new Western allies to protect itself against a perceived Russian threat. Fast forward to August 2008, and long-simmering tensions helped make South Ossetia the arena of the worst clash between Russia and the United States since the end of the Cold War.

Given the complexity of these relationships, it is better to describe this picture not as a giant chessboard, but as a castle of dominoes, wherein the whole construction totters if you dislodge one piece.

The second mirage is that of the Russian bear looming over this region ready to maul the relatively defenseless Caucasian peoples, even today. I believe this outlook is exaggerated. To be sure, Russia is still the most powerful outside actor in the region. In the 1990s, the Russian military indeed meddled disastrously in the conflicts of the region and still has troops stationed just 30 miles from Tbilisi in the town of Akhalgori.* Yet Russia's capacity to control events is far less than most observers assume.

It is geography that firstly limits Russia's role here. Both the physical barrier of the Greater Caucasus range and the strong histories of independent statehood in the southern Caucasus forced tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union to rely on local leaders to maintain their rule. The number of ethnic Russians present in these areas has always been small. Even today Russia has very few people and direct levers to pull here.

Many Western analysts saw the 2008 war as evidence of Russia's neo-imperialist plans for domination in the South Caucasus and the "near abroad" in general. In actual fact, Moscow has spent much of the last two years offering incentives and gifts to Armenia and Azerbaijan, while President Dmitry Medvedev has personally invested time and effort in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process. Russia's recent consolidation of a military alliance with Armenia cannot disguise a long-term strategic retreat from the Caucasus where the local players, including the Armenians, prefer to have multiple partnerships and not just one. Today the Caucasus is a neighborhood where Russia is one of several international players and where economic, not military, tools are the ones that matter.

Even in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which have both accepted de facto Russian control as a price for their de facto secession from Georgia, Russia's stake is not as heavy as it looks. Moscow is investing millions of dollars in the territories, money that it needs to spend elsewhere. Almost no other country has followed Russia's example in recognizing the two territories as independent; Moscow's move has stirred up discontent in the restive North Caucasus.

In the long-term a truce over these frozen conflicts may be possible, primarily because international deadlock over these two territories reduces Moscow's ability to deal with an even more urgent security problem: its own turbulent North Caucasus. Russia cannot stabilize Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia on its own, but eventually needs the help of Georgians, Abkhaz, Ossetians and the West to do so. A deal over South Ossetia, which was always economically part of Georgia and is linked to Russia by just one tunnel through the mountains, is certainly achievable in the next decade.

So the all-powerful Russian bear is something of an illusion; Moscow remains a prickly and unpredictable beast certainly, but not an omnipotent one.

A third mirage is the perception of the South Caucasus as an area of great Western strategic interest -- an approach, paradoxically, that actually does more harm than good.

Two factors have led to the point of view that the South Caucasus is of such global import: first, the desire to see the region as a new essential energy corridor for the West; second, the desire to see it as a zone for NATO enlargement.

In energy terms, the South Caucasus is indeed an important transport corridor for Caspian Sea oil and gas; there were good reasons why Azerbaijan needed pipeline routes independent of Russia and Iran. Oil pumped through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline has also brought billions of dollars of much-needed revenue to Azerbaijan -- and rather less to Georgia. Caspian Sea gas has lessened the reliance of both countries on Russian gas. But many Western policymakers have incorrectly treated pipeline policy as a zero-sum strategic game. In the 1990s, several new Caspian enthusiasts allowed themselves to believe extravagant claims about the oil reserves of the Caspian Sea, comparing them to those of Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. These claims later turned out to be highly exaggerated. A pair of unhelpful metaphors made things worse. The image of a "new Silk Road" stretching from Central Asia across to the Black Sea, pretty though it sounds, unfortunately conjured up a medieval era of pre-modern principalities. And the idea of a "Great Game" comparing the new interest in the South Caucasus with the struggle for influence between tsarist Russia and Great Britain in Central Asia and Afghanistan in the 19th century cast the locals as passive objects and Moscow in the role of a deadly rival. These metaphors unduly raised the hopes of small nations that they were essential to the West, while antagonizing Russia. In retrospect, strategic ambitions to establish a position in the region ran ahead of a more sober assessment of its place on the European energy map and its economic needs.

The second grand strategic vision imposed on the Caucasus the West was that of NATO expansion into Georgia. The issue on the table was not really Georgia's right to join NATO -- something that the Georgian public voted for by a good majority in a referendum. The issue was whether active pursuit of this was a good policy for either Georgia or NATO - it is now clear that it was not. The effort did not improve Georgia's security, and NATO was not ready for a country with undeveloped armed forces and weak state institutions, as well as two unresolved conflicts on its territory. As became clear in August 2008, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili believed he had far more support in Washington for his actions over South Ossetia than he actually did. When that conflict had played itself out, Georgia was left with neither Abkhazia and South Ossetia, nor a Membership Action Plan for joining NATO.

Far better than this kind of rhetorical and selective strategic engagement would have been more focused lower-level investment in institution-building. That would at least have allowed the locals to make sober assessments of their own capacities and what they themselves should ask from Western patrons with limited attention spans. This leads me to the paradoxical thought that a healthy dose of strategic insignificance would be very positive for the South Caucasus. Viewing the region in this light would allow outsiders and locals alike to concentrate on solving essential everyday problems.

I believe the South Caucasus would benefit from a truce between the latter-day Great Powers, in which they accept the interests of the others, so long as their intentions are not hostile. The outsiders should agree not to provide offensive weapons to the region and to work together to halt any slide to conflict. That vision only makes sense if the region belongs to no security organization-its in-between status making it a zone of neutrality rather than conflict.

At the moment that vision is clearly utopian, given the heavy Russian presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the smoldering volcano of the Karabakh dispute. Still, outsiders have the freedom to imagine a different future and frame their policies accordingly.

Hand in hand with this goal goes an economic vision: Imagine the South Caucasus region as a free trade zone and communications hub, radiating out to five points of a star: to Russia, the Caspian Sea, Iran, Turkey and the Black Sea. The day the railway line is reopened through Russia, Abkhazia, Georgia, Armenia, the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan to Iran -- with a sideways connection to the Black Sea, Turkey and Europe -- is the day the South Caucasus regains its role as a region with real prospects for the future.

Few locals and outsiders think in these terms. Narrow bilateralism is an abiding problem in Caucasus policy -- a problem complicated by the multiple policy agendas of a country such as Russia or the United States. For instance, Washington has an Armenia policy driven mostly by Congress and the more than a million Armenian Americans who make up a powerful domestic lobby. Meanwhile, it has an Azerbaijan policy, whose advocates in the energy companies and in the military are focused on that country as a source of oil and gas and as an over-flight station for troops and supplies headed to Afghanistan. And there is Washington's Georgia policy, which for a time was the prize exhibit in President Bush's "democratization agenda." The point is that with few exceptions, almost no one in Washington is thinking of how to approach the South Caucasus as a region, whose economic needs and security problems are inter-connected and best resolved by a holistic regional approach.

Meanwhile, the most promising agents of change in the Caucasus receive far  too little recognition. They are small businessmen and traders born in the region. Often today they are working as entrepreneurs outside the Caucasus, not working to enrich the region itself. Small traders are no respecters of borders or ethnic difference and the mythical "ancient hatreds" that politicians sometimes conjure up to mobilize loyalty and hatred. International organizations have spent millions over the past two decades on peace-building projects in the South Caucasus, but the most effective catalysts for cross-border cooperation were two wholesale markets that were entirely spontaneous.

One was outside the village of Ergneti on the administrative border between South Ossetia and Georgia. Georgians and Ossetians traded almost everything, from cars to matches, and the profits of the market sustained South Ossetia for a decade. The second market was in the village of Sadakhlo inside Georgia but near the borders with both Armenia and Azerbaijan and an entreport for traders from both those countries - even as they were in a virtual state of war. The lesson of the two markets, both now sadly closed down, is this: the region is still a place of dynamic individuals, not only warring group identities.

As for Western policy-makers, I believe they should ask themselves two questions every time they contemplate an intervention in the South Caucasus: "Is my action helping to open borders and free up a blocked region?" and "Does it empower ordinary people and not just governments?" 


*Update, Sept. 14, 2010: "Akhalgori" corrects an earlier incorrect spelling.