Bending Intelligence to Political Purposes

Intelligence, it is commonly said, is inherently fallible. And the conventional wisdom is that people tend to see the world as they expect to see it and so are slow to change their minds.

If that is true, policymakers' decisions based on such intelligence analysis and mind-set should be executed carefully. There is nowhere that is more crucial than on the Korean peninsula. Their overall judgments also must be speedy, accurate and taken with great care, especially in assessing an undercurrent of the soon-to-be-declared power shift in North Korea. Far too often, the deepest and most authoritative country analysis is colored by the administration in power in the South.

Ten years or so ago, for instance, some North Korea analysts at government-financed institutes in the South proudly enjoyed likening the North to "a ship on fire in mid-ocean with a hold full of ammunition." A handful of then-senior colleagues at Korea's Blue House joined their top decision-maker who allegedly claimed in a telephone conversation with his counterpart at the Clinton White House that the North would collapse within six to 24 months.

Of course, it's not sure whether their assenting opinions were deliberately made to support official policy under the conservative Kim Young-sam government. But other pessimistic Korea watchers imagined that if the power succession should fail to proceed, millions of people would likely abandon their homes and move in hordes across the countryside, hastening to the northwest side of the Chinese frontier to search for a better life. The roads would be crammed with hungry refugees, people clinging onto the steps of the trains or crowded upon their roofs.

Even though it wasn't like the Saigon style of panicked people paying whatever it took to clamber into a chopper, these were the familiar predictions of scenes of exhaustion, frustration, resentment and deprivation as the North subsided into anarchy. Literally, the analysts thought, the poverty-stricken populace faced nothing more grimly optimistic than a choice of nightmares.

Anyhow, numerous obituaries for the Kim family now have proven premature. Now that the ‘Dear Leader' Kim Jong-il has successfully cleaned the house for the ‘Brilliant Young General' Jong-un as his heir apparent, the old fumbling and second thoughts which have so far obfuscated predictions over the handover of dynastic rule to a third generation appear useless. The "on the one hand, on the other hand" assessments are no longer needed.

When the Young General will become a leader de jure is anyone's guess. The walls at every home and in all public offices where head-shot portraits of the ‘Great Leader' Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are hung closely together will soon host an additional photo for the Young General, presumably in his late 20s. At the same time, North Korea will for the time being be busy coping with headaches at home by micromanaging the economic sectors in order to legitimize its monopolistic control of domestic political power.

Meanwhile, policies adopted by successive South Korean governments to deal with the North show that the best-structured scheme of analyzing the regime usually ended with the tenure of the administration in power at the time simply because different decision makers have their own taste for the realities of the Kim dynasty, as clearly evidenced by the liberal and conservative governments in South Korea. In short, it is fair to say that numerous policy position papers on whether the despotic Kim regime could be overthrown were strongly influenced by the political climate of an individual government.

Under the right-wing Kim administration, which lasted from 1993 to 1998, North Korea analysts spent much time writing obituaries signaling the Kim dynasty's demise. They were concerned only to see that a new North Korea would be left a workable state, preferably a democratic one, at least friendly to the South.

By contrast, there were very few cases of diagnosing the North as a time-bomb waiting to explode under the liberal Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun governments that reigned from 1998 to 2008, whose progressive policy began where the Kim Young-sam administration had failed. Relatively sympathetic to the ideals of the communist regime, proponents of the sunshine engagement policy were confident that the regime in Pyongyang would not wither.

The current Lee government, which took power in 2008, is a case in point. It has reverted to following a pattern similar to the right-wing Kim's a decade earlier. In the eyes of Mr. Lee and his political cohorts, the sunshine policy decisively helped to extend the life of what they regard as the failed regime in Pyongyang. Corruption and distrust, they believe, have already become a national disease. These are infectious, like a pebble dropped into a still pond.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Lee and his brain trust have tended to place a large bet on the collapse of what they regarded as an unsustainable gangster-state, radicalizing the people with the idea that leaving the Kims in power must be a bigger risk to the national security than replacing it.

Just as the ultimate object of hide-and-seek is not to remain concealed but to be found, it is my judgment that Kim and his clique have no choice but to discard the nuclear blackmail that has rattled world capitals for the last several years. Having played the nuclear card brilliantly, they will gradually realize that they're getting the wrong end of the stick over the long run.

In this context, however, the Lee government still refuses to offer olive branches to the North unless Pyongyang apologizes for the sinking in March of the South Korean naval ship, the Cheonan. As second-best, the Lee government seems aim at a peacefully divided one peninsula.

But I feel that the Lee government cannot afford to take such a narrow approach. When the long-stalled six-party talks resume in the not-too-distant future, the seasoned negotiators meet on an equal footing, like "distant relatives assembling to divide an inheritance." The talks are seldom easy, because the compelling issues -- the North's nuclear weapons and an establishment of peace regime for keeping the stability on the peninsula--- are colossal and the member states' passions run high.

A new security environment demands a new paradigm. I'm very optimistic about the future of North Korea although not optimistic about the future of the Kim regime. Plus, I am optimistic because I feel certain that North Korea, although nominally an independent state but virtually the personal fief of the Kim family, will eventually come to an end. It's time the global organizations, including the United Nations, should offer the surest path toward the happy ending of it.

Lee Byong-Chul is a senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul.