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The information fortress known as North Korea

Glionna is a Times staff writer

For months, North Korea watchers have played a frustrating guessing game: Is leader Kim Jong Il healthy? Incapacitated? Or even dead?

Many speculate that the reclusive 66-year-old has been sidelined by a stroke, while the government in Pyongyang continues to release undated photos showing an active Kim, sporting his trademark bouffant, at public events.

The question of Kim’s whereabouts underscores the difficulty of knowing anything conclusive about what goes on in North Korea, an isolated society with somewhat primitive technology and an obsession with forbidding any information -- even the price of rice -- to escape its borders.

For years, the autocratic Kim has cloaked his impoverished nation beneath a veil of secrecy that has defied the prying eyes of outsiders. Making a cellphone call to the outside world can be punished by death.

“Kim’s approach is, ‘Know thy enemy but don’t let them know us,’ ” said Young Howard, who three years ago founded Open Radio for North Korea, a short-wave station that broadcasts two hours a day to the North from Seoul. “That means even his health is top secret. . . . His country is always in a state of war. That’s his mentality.”

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As a result, analysts say, estimates about Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities and the scope of internal dissent at best remain semi-informed speculation.

These days, much of the information gathering on North Korea comes not from governments but private individuals and human rights groups that have managed to piece together a clandestine network of internal reporters. Some nongovernmental aid organizations return from the country with observations of what goes on there.

Erica Kang, director of Good Friends, a rights group that serves as a watchdog on North Korea, says reliable reports are scarce and must be independently confirmed to be believed.

Most North Koreans are limited to government-controlled news and are rarely allowed to travel from their hometowns.

“Nobody is too confident about information out of North Korea,” Kang said. “Even the North Korean government isn’t that confident of the statistics they compile.”

Analysts say North Korea’s closed society has proved virtually spy-proof.

“What Kim Jong Il has put together is a counter-intelligence masterpiece,” said Korean historian Andrei Lankov, a lecturer and columnist at the Korea Times in Seoul. “For outsiders looking in, it’s a intelligence nightmare. We don’t know anything about North Korean politics and we should admit it.”

The few foreigners allowed inside North Korea have almost no ability to move around on their own, are under constant observation in their supervised itineraries and are rarely allowed to speak to average citizens without government minders present, he said.

“Foreigners stand out, even if they are Asian, by their dress, height, even their manner of movement,” he said. “North Koreans are warned that all foreigners are potential spies. They cannot invite outsiders into their homes. All conversations have to be reported. It’s not an easy place to collect information.”

Western intelligence officials acknowledge that both Kim and his late father, the nation’s founder, Kim Il Sung, have successfully shut out spies for decades.

“I speak of the CIA’s record in North Korea as the longest running failure in the history of American espionage,” said Donald Gregg, a CIA station chief in South Korea in the 1970s and a former U.S. ambassador to Seoul. “It has always been the toughest of the tough targets. In my day, we truly did not know what was going on there.

“We might have recruited the odd North Korean serving in the African desert who would do anything for a bottle of whiskey. But then he’d go back to Pyongyang, and that would be the end of it. I hope it has gotten better.”

Even South Korean officials, with arguably the biggest stake in keeping tabs on the North, acknowledge their limitations.

Kim Suk-woo, a presidential aide in Seoul in the early 1990s, cited reports that soon after assuming power in 1994, Kim Jong Il conducted a study of the failure of former Eastern Bloc communist countries.

The North Koreans “concluded that one major problem was leaks and determined that all sorts of information about their society was critical and should be kept secret or destroyed,” the South Korean said.

As a result, outside intelligence is often based on accounts from people like Zhu Sung-ha, a defector who escaped from North Korea in 2001. Many analysts criticize reports from defectors as too narrow in scope to be of use. But Zhu, now a journalist, disagrees.

Taken together, he says, the purviews of individual defectors bring forth a picture of life in North Korea.

“Like a puzzle,” he said, “you fit the pieces together.”

He criticized South Korean intelligence for not getting inside the Pyongyang government. “The two Koreas have been at war for 60 years,” Zhu said, in reference to the state of war that has officially existed since the Korean War. “During that time they should have placed someone close to Kim. I am surprised their intelligence is so weak.”

As a result, much of the limited snooping comes from unlikely sources, including amateurs who use Google Earth satellite mapping technology to track North Korean military hardware

“There are a host of people who have made it their hobby to look at interesting features of the North Korean landscape,” said Scott Snyder, a Korea analyst for the Asia Foundation. “They’re like the old short-wave radio guys. They have tried to label stuff like North Korean nuclear facilities and the locations of airfields, and they spend time debating on Internet chat rooms.”

Howard said he founded his Open Radio for North Korea broadcasts as a way to encourage the open trading of information between the Koreas.

He said the nadir of North Korea intelligence gathering came during the 1990s famine when outsiders were unable to determine how many residents were dying from starvation.

“The range [of estimates] was so wide -- between 500,000 to 1 million people,” he said. “Something so critical, yet nobody knew for sure.”

Years after the famine, some North Koreans are more willing to offer information -- often for payment -- figuring they must put the welfare of their families before that of the state.

“The lines of communication are opening up,” Howard said.

Good Friends publishes regular Internet reports on North Korea. One included such headlines as “Food Shortage Lowers the Attendance of a Munitions Factory in Eunduk County” and “15 People Publicly Executed in Onsung County.”

The group has also broken North Korean news, including an explosion in June involving a petroleum pipeline near Pyongyang.

“Someone threw a cigarette without thinking. There were lots of casualties, even deaths,” Kang said. “South Korean intelligence denied the story. They later came back and said we were right.”

The group seeks to raise awareness to the plight of average North Koreans. “There’s been far too much political rhetoric on North Korea as an axis of evil,” she said. “Politics has overshadowed the stories of real people.”

But despite small successes by activists and private groups, government spies remain stymied.

“When Walter Mondale was U.S. ambassador to Japan in the mid-1990s, he once told me that anyone who described himself as an expert on North Korea was either a liar or a fool,” said Marcus Noland, a North Korea analyst for the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. “That still applies today.”

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john.glionna@latimes.com

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Special correspondent Youkyung Lee in Seoul contributed to this report.


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