Seven Questions: Reading the Tea Leaves in Pyongyang

Kim Jong Il’s mysterious failure to show up for his country’s 60th birthday bash has set off a wave of speculation about Dear Leader’s health. To find out what might be happening in Pyongyang, FP spoke with expert Ken E. Gause, who has been studying the North Korean regime for two decades.

Photoillustration by Elizabeth Glassanos for FP The Secret History of Kim Jong Il
By Kim Hyun Sik

Few people have the chance to watch a shy young man grow into a ruthless dictatorand live to talk about it. But, for one North Korean professor, Kim Jong Il is much more than the man holding his country hostage. Hes a former student.

Foreign Policy: What do you think is going on right now in North Korea?

Photoillustration by Elizabeth Glassanos for FP The Secret History of Kim Jong Il
By Kim Hyun Sik

Few people have the chance to watch a shy young man grow into a ruthless dictatorand live to talk about it. But, for one North Korean professor, Kim Jong Il is much more than the man holding his country hostage. Hes a former student.

Foreign Policy: What do you think is going on right now in North Korea?

Ken Gause: The seriousness of Kims health problems is still in question, but I believe there probably is something going on, given the chatter that has been coming out of North Korea and the region. This has happened before, but the level of chatter seems to be much more intense.

FP: Youre what we might call a tea-leaf readeran analyst who works on an issue with very limited information, looking for scraps of intelligence that might provide some clues to what is happening. So, what kinds of tea leaves are you looking for?

KG: You need to look at signals of not just whats happening today or in the last few weeks, but what has been happening over the last year or so. One of the first clues or tea leaves that Pyongyang-watchers identified was the fact that Kim Jong Ils half brother Kim Pyong Il, who is the ambassador to Poland, began making public appearances last year with his children. This seemed to be highly unusual compared to previous years.

Another tea leaf we would try to read is North Koreas 60th anniversary parade itself. There were some interesting figures on the leadership rostrum. Cho Myong-nok, who is the de facto No. 2 man in the regime, the head of the general political bureau, who has not been seen in public since April of last year, made a public appearance. He has been rumored to be in very ill health. He may have been showing leadership unity in the absence of Kim Jong Il.

There have been press accounts saying that regular North Korean military forces did not participate in the parade. If thats true, it could be an indication, if theres uncertainty within the leadership, of not wanting to have excess military troops inside the capital.

There doesnt appear to be any unusual troop movement or increase in communications chatter on North Korean military communication channels, which you might expect to see if a crisis were underway. That said, from everything that I understand about Kim Il Sungs death in 1994, there was also not a lot of unusual movement within the regime.

FP: A Japanese professor has written a book arguing that Kim Jong Il actually died in 2003 and is being played by body doubles. Is that nonsense?

KG: I wouldnt totally discount it as nonsense. If there is one regime on Earth that can probably pull something off like that, it might be North Korea, given the restricted access to Kim Jong Il as well as the fact that his public appearances are highly staged. If the regime were worried about the fallout of Kims death or incapacitation and the implications that might have for power struggles or regime stability, they might have tried to perpetuate some sort of ruse until a succession system could be put in place. That said, I still find the idea that he may have died in 2003 and has been replaced by doubles as highly speculative.

FP: What if Kims health does fail? What does the succession picture look like?

TK: Various potential scenarios could emerge. One would be a collective leadership. Some people suggest there may even be some sort of collective leadership in place right now that is running day-to-day affairs within the regime.

Such a collective leadership might have people such as Chang Song-taek, who is the director of the Korean Workers Partys administration department, a very powerful department that oversees many of the critical intelligence and security organizations within the regime. Or O Kuk-yol, who is the director of the Korean Workers Partys operations department. This is kind of the elite special forces within the regime, and supposedly they also have a praetorian guard function. Or Yi Che-kang, who is the first deputy director of the Korean Workers Partys organization guidance department, probably the most powerful organization within the party apparatus and maybe within North Korea itself. Its Kim Jong Ils eyes and ears on the regime. And theres Kim Yong-nam, who is the head of the Supreme Peoples Assembly, which is kind of like North Koreas legislature, and also the figurehead that meets many of the foreign dignitaries who come to Pyongyang.

Other people might be Kim Yong-chun, the former chief of the general staff and now a vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, or Cho Myong-nok, whom Ive already mentioned is the head of the general political bureau and is the first vice chairman of the National Defense Commission and the de facto No. 2 man within the regime. Theres also Kim Ok, who is Kim Jong Ils technical secretary and possible fifth wife. Apparently she plays a very strong role behind the scenes.

FP: What about Kims sons? Might one of them just take over?

KG: I believe that is a much more distant possibility. His sons have not been groomed or designated to be the heir, which suggests that it would be very difficult for them to easily step into the role of the supreme leader. More likely, they would be a figurehead for much more powerful figures behind the scenes. Kim Jong-nam has, by all reports, not been in North Korea very often over the last several years since he was kicked out of Japan. As the first son, he would be the one wed expect to be the heir apparent. But its very difficult to build a patronage system and maintain alliances within the regime if youre outside of it.

The other two sons, Kim Jong-chol and Kim Jong-un, are both in their 20s. Kim Jong Il started being groomed as successor in 1963 when he started to accompany his father on military guidance inspection tours. He became the heir apparent in the early 1980s and replaced Kim Il Sung in 1994 upon his fathers death. So, that was a 30-year period of preparing to become the successor, and none of the sons has had that sort of experience.

FP: What about the military? Some analysts have suggested that a military strongman might take charge.

KG: There are a few individuals inside the regime who meet the criteria for becoming a military strongman: someone who would have access to the resources to secure power, access to command-and-control links within the regime, and early knowledge of Kims incapacitation or death so that he can move quickly against possible opponents.

Such people would be O Kuk-yol, who as I mentioned is the head of the operations department of the party. Or somebody like Kim Myong-kuk, who is the chief of the operation bureau of the general staff and would be in a position to control critical communications nodes within Pyongyang as far as the military goes. He held that position in 1994 when Kim Il Sung died and would be familiar with the procedures that might surround a succession crisis.

FP: Theres another scenario, wherein theres no central leadership and you have chaos.

KG: Various things could spin out of a succession crisis. You could have a collapse of the regime. It could be either an immediate collapse along the lines of what we saw in Romania, although you need to be very careful not to draw too strong parallels between those two cases. Or it could be a slow-motion collapse, where you have a regime that takes over and is much weaker. The fact that there is more movement within the population because of the economic crises and the increased information coming into the regime could cause it to be very unstable. A weaker regime may be unable to deal with that and eventually collapse.

A succession crisis could also lead to warlordism within North Korea as provincial leaders seek to carve out areas of control, and they may have access to weapons of mass destruction. This could possibly lead to a civil war within the regime that could be very destabilizing. If this regime implodes and collapses, having some sort of soft landing, where you would have an eventual reunification, could get really complicated.

Ken E. Gause is senior analyst at CNA, a nonprofit think tank in Alexandria, Va., director of its Foreign Leadership Studies Program, and author of the recent paper Can the North Korean Regime Survive Kim Jong Il? in the Korean Journal of Defense Analysis.

More from Foreign Policy

A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed  according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.
A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.

Why Do People Hate Realism So Much?

The school of thought doesn’t explain everything—but its proponents foresaw the potential for conflict over Ukraine long before it erupted.

Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.
Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.

China’s Crisis of Confidence

What if, instead of being a competitor, China can no longer afford to compete at all?

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.

Why This Global Economic Crisis Is Different

This is the first time since World War II that there may be no cooperative way out.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.

China Is Hardening Itself for Economic War

Beijing is trying to close economic vulnerabilities out of fear of U.S. containment.