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« Bombings Hit Atomic Experts in Iran Streets | Main | Lee vows to make N Korea pay price for provocations »

North Korea Keeps World Guessing

Oct. 10, 2010 | PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA | North Korean soldiers marched in a parade to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the founding of North Korea’s ruling party. The North’s military is the subject of much diplomatic speculation.

WASHINGTON — With North Korea reeling from economic and succession crises, American and South Korean officials early this year secretly began gaming out what would happen if the North, led by one of the world’s most brutal family dynasties, collapsed.

Over an official lunch in late February, a top South Korean diplomat confidently told the American ambassador, Kathleen Stephens, that the fall would come “two to three years” after the death of Kim Jong-il, the country’s ailing leader, Ms. Stephens later cabled Washington. A new, younger generation of Chinese leaders “would be comfortable with a reunited Korea controlled by Seoul and anchored to the United States in a benign alliance,” the diplomat, Chun Yung-woo, predicted.

But if Seoul was destined to control the entire Korean Peninsula for the first time since the end of World War II, China — the powerful ally that keeps the North alive with food and fuel — would have to be placated. So South Korea was already planning to assure Chinese companies that they would have ample commercial opportunities in the mineral-rich northern part of the peninsula.

As for the United States, the cable said, “China would clearly ‘not welcome’ any U.S. military presence north of the DMZ,” the heavily mined demarcation line that now divides the two Koreas.

This trove of cables ends in February, just before North Korea began a series of military actions that has thrown some of Asia’s most prosperous countries into crisis. A month after the lunch, the North is believed to have launched a torpedo attack on the Cheonan, a South Korean warship, that killed 46 sailors.

Three weeks ago it revealed the existence of a uranium enrichment plant, potentially giving it a new pathway to make nuclear bomb material. And last week it shelled a South Korean island, killing two civilians and two marines and injuring many more.

None of that was predicted in the dozens of State Department cables about North Korea obtained by WikiLeaks, and in fact even China, the North’s closest ally, has often been startlingly wrong, the cables show. But the documents help explain why some South Korean and American officials suspect that the military outbursts may be the last snarls of a dying dictatorship.

They also show that talk of the North’s collapse may be rooted more in hope than in any real strategy: similar predictions were made in 1994 when the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung, suddenly died, leaving his son to run the most isolated country in Asia. And a Chinese expert warned, according to an American diplomat, that Washington was deceiving itself once again if it believed that “North Korea would implode after Kim Jong-il’s death.”

The cables about North Korea — some emanating from Seoul, some from Beijing, many based on interviews with government officials, and others with scholars, defectors and other experts — are long on educated guesses and short on facts, illustrating why their subject is known as the Black Hole of Asia. Because they are State Department documents, not intelligence reports, they do not include the most secret American assessments, or the American military’s plans in case North Korea disintegrates or lashes out.

They contain loose talk and confident predictions of the end of the dynasty that has ruled North Korea for 65 years. Those discussions were fueled by a rash of previously undisclosed defections of ranking North Korean diplomats, who secretly sought refuge in the South.

But they were also influenced by a remarkable period of turmoil inside North Korea, including an economic crisis set off by the government’s failed effort to revalue the currency and sketchy intelligence suggesting that the North’s military might not abide the rise of Mr. Kim’s son Kim Jong-un, who was recently made a four-star general despite having no military experience.

The cables reveal that in private, the Chinese, long seen as North Korea’s last protectors against the West, occasionally provide the Obama administration with colorful assessments of the state of play in North Korea. Chinese officials themselves sometimes even laugh about the frustrations of dealing with North Korean paranoia.

When James B. Steinberg, the deputy secretary of state, sat down in September 2009 with one of China’s most powerful officials, Dai Bingguo, state councilor for foreign affairs, Mr. Dai joked that in a recent visit to North Korea he “did not dare” to be too candid with the ailing and mercurial North Korean leader. But the Chinese official reported that although Kim Jong-il had apparently suffered a stroke and had obviously lost weight, he still had a “sharp mind” and retained his reputation among Chinese officials as “quite a good drinker.” (Mr. Kim apparently assured Mr. Dai during a two-hour conversation in Pyongyang, the capital, that his infirmities had not forced him to give up alcohol.)

But reliable intelligence about Mr. Kim’s drinking habits, it turns out, does not extend to his nuclear program, about which even the Chinese seem to be in the dark.
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