Each time there’s a crisis on the Korean peninsula, a range of theories is offered as explanation. The sinking of South Korea’s Cheonan war boat in March is no exception.
If the North is responsible, perhaps Pyongyang acted in revenge for South Korea’s sinking of a North Korean ship last November. Or maybe Kim Jong Il manufactured this crisis to bolster the standing of his son and position him to take over as North Korea’s next leader.
It’s mostly hypothesizing about a country U.S. intelligence officials freely acknowledge they don’t understand all that well.
“If we knew more about what the North Korean leadership was thinking, we would not be continually surprised,” says Art Brown, who once served as the CIA station chief in Seoul and later as national intelligence officer for East Asia. “And yet we are. We’re surprised by the submarine torpedo episode. We’re surprised by a nuclear test. And then afterward we sit around and speculate what the North Korean leadership had in mind for doing that.”
An ‘Unenlightened’ Leadership
Communist North Korea has always been a mysterious place, but it’s become all the stranger as it has grown more isolated.
“This current leadership in North Korea is less astute, less worldly than the [North Korean] leadership during the Cold War,” says Victor Cha, a Korea specialist at the White House under President George W. Bush.
Kim Jong Il’s father, Kim Il Sung, was friends with East German leader Erich Honecker and Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu, Cha notes, and North Korean officials moved freely between Soviet bloc capitals.
“The current generation has none of those benefits,” says Cha, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They’ve largely lived in North Korea. Maybe an occasional trip to China, but that’s about it. So this is a relatively unenlightened leadership, even by North Korean standards.”
To complicate matters more, the Pyongyang regime is on the verge of yet another leadership change. Kim Jong Il apparently suffered a stroke two years ago and his capabilities have been in question ever since.
The domestic political situation in Pyongyang is likely a factor in the current crisis. But a senior U.S. government official who follows Korea closely says the United States “lacks clarity” on how exactly the politics are playing out.
On the surface, the situation seems less dangerous than previous episodes, such as in 2004 when North Korean leaders talked about making Tokyo and Los Angeles “a sea of fire.” But the lack of clarity makes analysts uneasy.
“The North is expert at brinkmanship tactics,” says Cha. “The problem is, we don’t know how good their judgment is … when they are really pushing not just up to the brink but past it. The actions they have taken historically give one a sense that they do know where the edge of the cliff is. But we know so little about the [current] North Korean leadership that I think there’s probably less of that confidence today.”
There is clearly a dangerous escalation scenario that could be played out around the disputed Northern Limit Line that separates North and South Korean waters. There have been provocations at sea before, but South Korean President Lee Myung-bak seems determined that this time there should be consequences for the death of the 46 South Korean sailors aboard the Cheonan.
Brown, who travels often to South Korea for business purposes, says he noticed on a trip to Seoul earlier this month that younger South Koreans are angrier about the Cheonan than they have been about any North Korean act in the past.
“For the first time on this episode I noticed in conversations in Korea that this touched their hearts. These were 46 young draftees, young conscripts, similar to them in generation. There was very much of, ‘There but for the grace of God could have gone my younger brother.’ ”
Put it all together: A North Korean leadership in transition, possibly prone to mistakes in judgment; heated rhetoric and threats on both sides; and a South Korean government insistent that the North Korean regime should be held accountable for its aggression. It is, says the senior U.S. government official, “an extremely tense moment.”