Guesswork and Rumors Make for Bad North Korea Policy

The United States can take steps to clear up the darkness around Pyongyang’s actions.

The Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge
The Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge, which spans the Yalu River, vanishes into darkness on the North Korean side, at the border town of Dandong on Dec. 14, 2013. Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images

North Korea is a famously hard country to understand from the outside. The satellite image of a dark North Korea surrounded by its well-lit neighbors, South Korea and China, captures the darkness that swallows up information there. Even those of us who have studied North Korea extensively have, if we’re honest about it, little idea as to what its leaders are actually thinking or what they might do.

CNN’s April 21 article that questioned North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s health, leading to a spate of unverifiable speculation about his incapacity or death, is the latest reminder of the near-total absence of reliable information about North Korea. Pyongyang’s opacity forces U.S. leaders to make decisions about war and peace on the basis of rumors and misinformation.

This situation can’t go on. Although they have since made up, U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim were swapping threats of mutual annihilation just two years ago. The risk of miscalculation is simply unacceptably high. Washington and Pyongyang may not be able to resolve all of their disputes, but a broader agreement that allows for the establishment of embassies would go a long way in reducing the risk of lethal miscalculations. If the United States could make such an arrangement with the Soviets during the Cold War, it should be able to do so with Kim today.

The closed nature of North Korea, the tendency of the United States and North Korea to view each other through the worst possible lens, and the decentralized media landscape in South Korea all limit U.S. understanding of fast-moving developments inside North Korea. That thus demands more direct modes of communication between the United States and North Korea.

North Korea is principally hard to read because it is a closed country. Reporters Without Borders ranks it as the worst country in the world for press freedom. The Korean Central News Agency is the only permitted source of official news on North Korean affairs. That creates a gulf in outside analysis. Policy deliberations, nonpartisan commentaries, and independent analyses by the expert community rarely take place. Articles about North Korea’s intentions are typically derived from Korean Central News Agency statements and analyzed by outside experts with varying agendas and levels of familiarity with North Korean language, history, and cultural context, leaving plenty of room for misinterpretations—or, in some instances, groundless rumors. The researcher Denny Roy famously noted that North Korea’s image as an irrational regime is the product of “misunderstanding and propaganda” designed to keep more powerful adversaries guessing. An egregious example was when a self-proclaimed North Korea expert who said that Kim Jong Il died from diabetes in 2003 and that a double was running the country. (Kim Jong Il died in 2011.)

Nearly 70 years of limited interactions between the United States and North Korea have created unfamiliarities at a near-comical scale. For instance, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo once referred to Kim Jong Un as “Chairman Un.” The similar-sounding names of the Kim dynastic leaders Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un likely threw Trump off, too.

Opacity and lack of transparency not only afford total control to the Kim regime but also make North Korea policy an easy target for manipulation by Washington hawks. After decades of failed talks, the politically expedient position has been to err on the side of skepticism when it comes to North Korean overtures, even though both sides are guilty of playing politics by reneging on past agreements. This bias toward cynicism means that the United States is more accepting of risks for escalation than of the risk of missing potential openings for de-escalation.

Former U.S. military and intelligence officials tend to be overrepresented in expert panels and congressional hearings throughout Washington, giving hawkish, regime change-oriented views more mainstream coverage. The result has been a dominant narrative that consistently overplays cynicism about North Korean overtures and overstates the United States’ resolve in improving bilateral relations. To Trump’s credit, after his initial saber-rattling, he has been more willing than most recent U.S. presidents to break the deadlock in bilateral relations and to meet with North Korean leadership. But negotiations have stalled since last October, and talks are unlikely to resume before the U.S. presidential election in November.

As the CNN episode shows, high-level diplomacy has failed to give the Trump administration any insights into even basic information, including the state of Kim Jong Un’s health or the possibility of a leadership change. Absent a comprehensive deal that includes opening of diplomatic posts in each other’s country, the United States will always be playing catch-up to decipher North Korea’s behaviors and intentions. Similarly, Pyongyang will always be disadvantaged when it comes to understanding how and why decisions are made in Washington and limited in its ability to make positive overtures.

The media landscape in South Korea further complicates outsiders’ understanding of North Korea. Not all South Korean coverage of North Korean news is equal, as the Hallym University professors Kim Kyung-Hee and Noh Ghee-young documented in their 2011 study on South Korean newspapers’ coverage of North Korea. According to Kim and Noh, conservative newspapers in South Korea tended to have negative or neutral reporting on North Korea and relied on North Korean defectors for information more often than liberal newspapers. On the other hand, liberal-leaning papers tended to be neutral or more positive in covering North Korea-related news and tended to cite U.S. government and American opinion-makers more often compared to conservative newspapers. So the type of South Korean papers U.S. government officials or analysts read matters.

The over-reliance on anonymous sources for reporting in South Korea adds to the challenge. According to a study on the use of anonymous sources by Korean Broadcasting System’s News9 and the BBC’s News at 10, they appeared three times more in the Korean news program than in the British one. This may point to a greater acceptance of anonymous reporting in South Korea, especially on news related to North Korea, where defectors and informants inside North Korea often serve as confidential sources.

Adding to the confused mix, mobile apps such as KakaoTalk facilitate rapid sharing of tabloid news and gossip (jjirashi) at lightning speed. For instance, in 2016, a KakaoTalk message claiming that Samsung Group Chairman Lee Kun-hee had died reached 48 million people within an hour, causing the market value of Samsung affiliates to fluctuate by 12 trillion won (around $10 billion). Lee had been ill since May 2014, so that likely gave the rumor plausibility. The story was later found to be inauthentic.

Navigating the information gap is a major challenge for the U.S.-North Korea relations. It erodes the ability to plan and respond to major developments, whether it is a sudden change in leadership, a global pandemic, or military maneuvers. It prevents both countries from discerning facts from rumors, dramatically increasing the likelihood of fatal misinterpretations and miscalculations. And it skews both sides to err on the side of cynical mistrust, which in turn renders diplomatic breakthroughs more difficult and unnecessary escalations more likely.

To address this challenge, the United States and North Korea should prioritize opening official diplomatic posts in each other’s capitals. To Trump’s credit, his administration stated its interest in opening a liaison office in Pyongyang in the lead-up to the Hanoi summit. Since the failed summit, however, interest in establishing diplomatic recognition has waned.

The false rumor about Kim Jong Un’s impending death should serve as a warning. The next rumor may claim that Kim is about to launch a nuclear attack, leaving U.S. decision-makers with little time to fact-check. There are many things in the relationship with Pyongyang that Washington cannot change. But it can act to end the unnecessary blindness it has imposed on itself.

Jessica J. Lee is a senior research fellow on East Asia at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

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