Asia

Behind North Korea's iron curtain

North Korean newsreader
Image caption State TV announced Kim Jong-il's death - just as it had broken the news of his father's passing in 1994

If foreign intelligence agencies have learned one thing about North Korea, it is to pay attention when state television says it has an important announcement to make.

When the distraught newsreader in black made her appearance on the screen at lunchtime on Monday, some will have had a flashback to a day in July 17 years ago.

A weeping announcer then revealed the death of the previous leader - North Korea's founder and all powerful dictator, Kim Il-sung.

Then as now, questions were asked about the failure of South Korean and American intelligence to detect the death, some days previously, of the leader of a highly militarised - and now nuclear armed-state.

And then as now, analysts protest they have little more than educated guesswork to find out what is happening in the black box that is the North Korean leadership.

North Korea is still - by some margin - the world's most closed, isolated and repressive state.

Some things have changed since 1994. There is now a primitive but thriving private market in food and basic consumer goods - eroding total state domination of the economy.

The majority of North Koreans also have an understanding that their Chinese and South Korean neighbours live better than they do. They once thought they were the envy of the world.

But the world's first hereditary pseudo-communist regime remains in power with not even the faintest hint of domestic opposition.

It still relies on total secrecy and control of information to keep its people compliant and its foreign enemies wrong-footed.

'Born of heaven'

On a visit to Pyongyang four years ago, the succession and Kim Jong-il's sons were very much on the mind of foreign journalists.

But our government-appointed minders professed not even to have heard of Kim Jong-un, the youngest son later chosen to succeed his father.

They are now being told that the junior Kim is "a great person born of heaven on (sacred) Mount Paektu".

He is set to join the pantheon of other revolutionary demigods in the Kim family tree - but I suspect ordinary North Koreans still know next to nothing about his two elder brothers and potential rivals.

Image caption New leader Kim Jong-un (second left) will now enter the official pantheon of leaders

The questions being asked by foreign observers now are remarkably similar to those asked on the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994.

Is the new leader capable of controlling the military? Does he have the strength of personality of his father? Is he a reformer or will he seek external conflict to consolidate his power, and is he rational?

North Korea watchers had to wait three years before Kim Jong-il even assumed the formal positions of leadership.

Some of the experts who had predicted the imminent collapse of the regime eventually came round to the view that Kim was fully in charge and that the state could survive indefinitely.

The guessing games now begin again.

The Americans and the South Koreans rely on satellites and electronic intercepts for their best information. They have got quite good at predicting when there will be a test of a nuclear device or a ballistic missile launch.

For human intelligence, they have to depend largely on information from defectors, and that is notoriously unreliable.

The biggest catch was Hwang Jang-yop, a disgruntled member of the leadership and former tutor to Kim Jong-il. But he was already estranged from the ruling circle when he came south in 1997, and his information was largely of historical interest.

Most of the refugees are manual labourers from the impoverished north of the country with no knowledge of the country's politics.

There is no news media in North Korea, only official propaganda. Discussing state affairs, even with friends and family, is foolhardy in a society overrun with informers at all levels.

The regime has been remarkably successful at keeping out information from the outside world, but in a digital age it is fighting a rearguard action.

Visiting journalists and others are relieved of their mobile phones, computers and newspapers at the border.

Image caption Foreigners have always had difficulty knowing what's really happening in North Korea

I once smuggled in a single sheet from the South Korean news agency, Yonhap, that reported a speech by the South Korean president.

I asked a junior officer at an industrial plant just across the border if she was interested.

She darted furtive looks to the left and right, snatched it out of my hand and put the illegal document straight into her handbag. We never mentioned it again.

But her curiosity was at odds with the state propaganda that normally came out of her mouth, especially when other officials were around.

Deceptive appearances

For decades, South Korean intelligence specialised in spreading black propaganda about North Korea, and particularly the ruling family.

The image of Kim Jong-il as a cognac-swilling playboy with a fondness for Scandinavian women and a penchant for terrorist attacks was conjured up at the headquarters of the old Korean CIA.

South Korea's intelligence services are still tainted by their cold war past - but they probably have better information and sources than they let on.

There is suspicion in Seoul that in the past agents have sometimes worked hand-in-hand with their counterparts in the north to engineer events of political advantage to both sides.

Coincidences abound in inter-Korean affairs, and not everything has always been as it appears.

The Chinese too sometimes get access to privileged information from Pyongyang and may have been tipped off before the announcement of Kim Jong-il's death.

But as with the succession of Kim Jong-il, analysts of all types will have to wait and see.

That's deeply unsettling for the neighbours. The Chinese, South Koreans and Japanese - with the Americans behind them - will have to prepare themselves for all eventualities.

Worst case scenarios will be played out again in Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo - from sudden collapse and floods of refugees, to civil war and all levels of conflict, up to and including an invasion of the south.

The next time North Korea says it has an important announcement to make, we can be sure that the neighbours will be listening.

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