Think-Tank Watch

By | February 03, 2012 | No Comments

Steven Denney is editor-in-chief  of PEAR, Yonsei University’s graduate journal, a leading voice at the Political Cartel (East Asia) blog, and a master’s student in Global Studies at Yonsei University. In the “week in review” for January 30 through February 3, 2012, Denney, Think-Tank Analyst for, compiles a list of recent articles on North Korea and Sino-North Korean relations.  – Editor

Think-Tank Watch
by Steven Denney

The past week has seen a flurry of analysis and commentary on or related to the book by Japanese journalist Yōji Gomi [五味洋治], entitled My Father, Kim Jong Il, and I:  Kim Jong Nam’s Exclusive Confession (父・金正日と私 : 金正男独占告白).  In addition to this important new text, questions about political stability and regime legitimacy have shaped scholarly discourse about the DPRK over the past several days.

– Via Leonid Petrov’s KOREA VISION, a link to a press conference given at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on January 24, 2012 with Yōji Gomi.  An audio recording of the press conference can be found at SoundCloud thanks to Leonid Petrov.  The dialog starting around 52:00 is particularly interesting, and centers on Kim Jong Nam’s affinity for capitalism and  Kim Jong Il’s disapproval of his son’s behavior.  As noted by other sources reporting on Kim Jong Nam’s correspondence with Yōji Gomi, this had a somewhat profound effect on Kim Jong Il and the approach he took toward educating his other sons (particularly currently leader Kim Jong-un).

– Joshua Stanton expresses “disappointment” with Yōji Gomi’s book about Kimg Jong-nam, writing that:

My reaction on reading these excerpts? Disappointment, mostly. Few of Jong Nam’s broader conclusions about North Korea are surprising or even divergent from the consensus of outside speculators. Most are either obvious, unsupported by any credible new revelations of fact, or both. An exception is his intriguing assertion that North Korea is “extremely unstable internally,” but the grafs offer no details to support this, and Jong Nam doesn’t seem to have spent much time in the more fly-blown parts of North Korea where that instability might be (barely) visible. The personal details were interesting — he never met Kim Jong Eun, had a close emotional relationship with his father, and has a Chinese “protection” detail.

Stanton links to several other articles at the top of his own missive, but  Scott Snyder‘s stands out as one of the more poignant assessments of Kim Jong-nam:

Kim Jong-nam’s public criticisms of the succession from his base in China also raise the question of who is Kim Jong-nam’s protector, especially given rumours last year that Kim Jong-un had instigated purges against leading supporters of Kim Jong-nam in Pyongyang. China presumably sees utility in protecting Kim Jong-nam — as a reform-minded Kim family member who is indebted to China — as a potential alternative leader if Kim Jong-un’s leadership fails. A more complicated factor is that in 2002 and 2003, shortly following his exile from Pyongyang, Kim Jong-nam appeared to have an open line of communication from Beijing with his uncle Jang Sung-taek and his aunt Kim Kyong-hui, who are now critical supporters of Kim Jong-un.

Stanton, in an article already several weeks old, has also commented on the “new-plan-same-as-the-old-plan” adopted by the US and South Korea:

[W]e can now safely put the “soft power” fad to rest, secure in the knowledge that Washington and Seoul have reverted back to the same old crap — dangerously underreactive diplomacy, and dangerously overreactive military options, both of which Pyongyang has learned to play to its own advantage, and neither of which consequently solves anything.

The DailyNK reports the Uriminzokkiri is targeting the credibility of the DailyNK’s claims and sources:

The accuracy of information cited in DailyNK has been verified by other news agencies in South Korea and overseas. The Washington Post and Al Jazeera have also reported in the past on Daily NK’s role bringing information on North Korea to the outside world.

It was also recently revealed that Kim Jong Il’s eldest son, Kim Jong Nam, told Tokyo Shimbun editor Yoji Komi in a series of emails exchanged between the two, “In the case of stuff citing defectors as the source, (Daily NK’s) inside North Korea market information and provincial information is comparatively accurate.

Commenting on the situation, one North Korea analyst said that “This kind of response by North Korea to the Daily NK is proof that its reports are having an effect on the country,” adding that “if they weren’t, they would have no reason to be so sensitive about them.

– Fellow analyst out of Yonsei, Joe Litt, recently discussed the issue of the credibility of mainstream news sources like the DailyNK.  In a post at the Political Cartel, Litt states that:

Media outlets such as the DailyNK, Radio Free Chosun, RFA, and mainstream news outlets that rely on unnamed “sources” (소식통) in North Korea and along the Sino-Korean border that publish stories on the internal doings of the North must always be taken with a large grain of salt. The reason is that their reports simply cannot be corroborated, and are impossible to verify after the fact. Of course this is only natural and unavoidable when working in an environment with an all-pervasive security apparatus, and one in which speaking to foreigners without permission is tantamount to treason. Relying on the testimony of individual defectors is also unwise. Defectors naturally have an overly-negative view of the country; after all they did leave behind their families, friends, coworkers, and country. Their lives were so bad that they willingly left behind the “known” for a potentially very dangerous “unknown.” (Note that this should not be taken in any way shape or form as “knock” against defectors or NK-related media outlets).

Peter Drysdale argues that despite arguments to the contrary, no near-term crisis is likely to erupt in the DPRK.  He quotes approvingly from a recent article by Yonsei University professors Moon Chung-in and John Delury in the East Asia Forum:

Delury and Moon point out that there are no signs of political ferment in North Korea. For the moment, the system is quite stable. The regime is ‘unified around the new face of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, the son of Kim Jong-il and, most importantly, the grandson of founding father Kim Il-sung. Kim Jong-un does not need charisma. In North Korea’s hierarchic ‘big leader’ suryong system, the young Kim is born to authority. His Baekdu bloodline is sufficient to endow his rule with legitimacy. And his power base is solid’. This is an hereditary system of rule as much as an authoritarian one.

– Scott Synder agrees with the views by Drysdale, Delury, and others in an article about leadership stability at the East Asia Forum, although he suggests that the criticism of Kim Jong-nam from China raises some interesting questions:

China presumably sees utility in protecting Kim Jong-nam — as a reform-minded Kim family member who is indebted to China — as a potential alternative leader if Kim Jong-un’s leadership fails. A more complicated factor is that in 2002 and 2003, shortly following his exile from Pyongyang, Kim Jong-nam appeared to have an open line of communication from Beijing with his uncle Jang Sung-taek and his aunt Kim Kyong-hui, who are now critical supporters of Kim Jong-un.

Leonid Petrov also conducted an interview with Australian ABC Classic FM Radio program “Midday” with Margaret Throsby.  The discussion deals with the past, present and future of the DPRK.  The interview is rather innocuous, except for perhaps Petrov’s suggestion that Kim Il-song may have died by his own hand, because there was nothing left for him to do.

A publication by CSIS’s Sheena Greitens on “Succession and Stability” overviews the implications of Kim Jong-il’s death, with recommendations for how US policymakers and diplomats should handle the situation.

North Korea Economy Watch documents efforts to establish the legitimacy of Kim Jong-un through “on the spot guidance” (OSG) and succession promoted through the media campaign.

The Asia Times Online has an interesting story about the DPRK opening up (economically) written by the esteemed Aidan Foster-Carter.  It asks, toward whom will North Korean open?

VOA reports on US officials to visit China for talks on North Korea.

Choe Sang-hun, at the NYT, reports on the transition of power in the DPRK.  Like Synder, Choe says the criticism from Kim Jong-nam raise some serious issues about the viability of the Kim dynasty.

– A little old, but just in case anyone missed it from the Korean Studies mailing list, Tariq Ali’s account of his trips to Pyongyang.  He certainly gives an alternative perspective to the predictable stuff about food shortages, lack of cars on the road and people weeping at statues.  His writing style is quite amusing, as well.

No Comments

  1. For the record, speaking in the recent edition of Korean-only magazine NK Vision, professional semi-recluse Prof. Bryan Myers also comes out in agreement with Drysdale, Delury, Snyder et al. I’ll try to get the relevant bits translated on Monday.

    On which note; “Kim Jong Eun is in complete control of North Korea”: so this is the new paradigm? Warning: as with all fresh-faced paradigms, it is best if someone pushes back. Takers?

    BTW Joe Litt: I know where you are coming from, I really do. I was a reader once. But I guess I am lucky; I sit there every day listening to our reporters talk to North Korea. It’s a bracing experience… Not that Daily NK is everything or everyone, of course.

  2. Chris,

    1) I had no idea you ran your own side blog. I’ve just added you to my Google Reader.

    2) Based on your comment it’s obvious you understand the main intent of what I wrote. 

    Just to make it clear to everyone else, the purpose of my piece that Steve linked to was not to disparage the DailyNK  or defector testimony, but to call attention to the fact that both must be read in a way that is different from the way one might read the Guardian or the New York Times (which can generally be taken at face value). The DailyNK is without a doubt one of the first sites I read every morning. It’s undeniable that the DailyNK’s undercover reporters and editors bravely risk their lives to provide an extraordinarily important service to the general public and scholars, but I read the DailyNK and related sites more to look for “indicators” of ongoing social trends, then for “facts” or “narratives.” Again, this is not to say or imply that the DailyNK’s informants are liars or exaggerating, or anything of the sort.  But since many of the stories are difficult or impossible to verify independently, from an academic/intellectual point of view one should focus less on the specific content of the stories themselves and instead tease out the broader trends that become evident through reading multiple stories combined with the narratives that emerge from other independent sources (defectors, NGOs, Chinese traders, etc.). Please do note that this lack of verifiability  is not an intentional attempt to mislead for propaganda purposes, nor is it a function of a lack of resources, but rather an inevitable by-product of the oppressive environment in which The DailyNK and others operate. 

    If you happen to  have any data on  the number of DailyNK stories that end up being confirmed through multiple, independent sources (e.g. the ’09 currency reform) versus the number of stories that remain unproven rumors versus the number of stories that end up being proven false, I’d be really interested in seeing it. 

  3. Hey Chris,

    Could I get a link to the NK Vision article? Korean is ok — with translation even better.

    Sorry I didn’t respond (was travelling throughout the peninsula) — J.Litt pretty much said what I would have — better, in fact, since he is the author of the article linked to.

  4. Time to check Political Cartel!!

  5. I recommend the accordions:; there was a great Wall Street Journal piece giving the back story on this as well.

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