With North Korea reeling from economic and succession crises, American and South Korean officials early this year secretly began gaming out what would happen if the North, led by one of the world’s most brutal family dynasties, collapsed.
Over an official lunch in late February, a top South Korean diplomat confidently told the American ambassador, Kathleen Stephens, that the fall would come “two to three years” after the death of Kim Jong-il, the country’s ailing leader, Ms. Stephens later cabled Washington. A new, younger generation of Chinese leaders “would be comfortable with a reunited Korea controlled by Seoul and anchored to the United States in a benign alliance,” the diplomat, Chun Yung-woo, predicted.
But if Seoul was destined to control the entire Korean Peninsula for the first time since the end of World War II, China — the powerful ally that keeps the North alive with food and fuel — would have to be placated. So South Korea was already planning to assure Chinese companies that they would have ample commercial opportunities in the mineral-rich northern part of the peninsula.
As for the United States, the cable said, “China would clearly ‘not welcome’ any U.S. military presence north of the DMZ,” the heavily mined demarcation line that now divides the two Koreas.
This trove of cables ends in February, just before North Korea began a series of military actions that has thrown some of Asia’s most prosperous countries into crisis. A month after the lunch, the North is believed to have launched a torpedo attack on the Cheonan, a South Korean warship, that killed 46 sailors.
Three weeks ago it revealed the existence of a uranium enrichment plant, potentially giving it a new pathway to make nuclear bomb material. And last week it shelled a South Korean island, killing two civilians and two marines and injuring many more.
None of that was predicted in the dozens of State Department cables about North Korea obtained by WikiLeaks, and in fact even China, the North’s closest ally, has often been startlingly wrong, the cables show. But the documents help explain why some South Korean and American officials suspect that the military outbursts may be the last snarls of a dying dictatorship.
They also show that talk of the North’s collapse may be rooted more in hope than in any real strategy: similar predictions were made in 1994 when the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung, suddenly died, leaving his son to run the most isolated country in Asia. And a Chinese expert warned, according to an American diplomat, that Washington was deceiving itself once again if it believed that “North Korea would implode after Kim Jong-il’s death.”
The cables about North Korea — some emanating from Seoul, some from Beijing, many based on interviews with government officials, and others with scholars, defectors and other experts — are long on educated guesses and short on facts, illustrating why their subject is known as the Black Hole of Asia. Because they are State Department documents, not intelligence reports, they do not include the most secret American assessments, or the American military’s plans in case North Korea disintegrates or lashes out.
They contain loose talk and confident predictions of the end of the dynasty that has ruled North Korea for 65 years. Those discussions were fueled by a rash of previously undisclosed defections of ranking North Korean diplomats, who secretly sought refuge in the South.
But they were also influenced by a remarkable period of turmoil inside North Korea, including an economic crisis set off by the government’s failed effort to revalue the currency and sketchy intelligence suggesting that the North’s military might not abide the rise of Mr. Kim’s son Kim Jong-un, who was recently made a four-star general despite having no military experience.
The cables reveal that in private, the Chinese, long seen as North Korea’s last protectors against the West, occasionally provide the Obama administration with colorful assessments of the state of play in North Korea. Chinese officials themselves sometimes even laugh about the frustrations of dealing with North Korean paranoia.
When James B. Steinberg, the deputy secretary of state, sat down in September 2009 with one of China’s most powerful officials, Dai Bingguo, state councilor for foreign affairs, Mr. Dai joked that in a recent visit to North Korea he “did not dare” to be too candid with the ailing and mercurial North Korean leader. But the Chinese official reported that although Kim Jong-il had apparently suffered a stroke and had obviously lost weight, he still had a “sharp mind” and retained his reputation among Chinese officials as “quite a good drinker.” (Mr. Kim apparently assured Mr. Dai during a two-hour conversation in Pyongyang, the capital, that his infirmities had not forced him to give up alcohol.)
But reliable intelligence about Mr. Kim’s drinking habits, it turns out, does not extend to his nuclear program, about which even the Chinese seem to be in the dark.
On May 13, 2009, as American satellites showed unusual activity at North Korea’s nuclear test site, officials in Beijing said they were “unsure” that North Korean “threats of another nuclear test were serious.” As it turns out, the North Koreans detonated a test bomb just days later.
Soon after, Chinese officials predicted that negotiations intended to pressure the North to disarm would be “shelved for a few months.” They have never resumed.
The cables also show that almost as soon as the Obama administration came to office, it started raising alarms that the North was buying up components to enrich uranium, opening a second route for it to build nuclear weapons. (Until now, the North’s arsenal has been based on its production of plutonium, but its production capacity has been halted.)
In June 2009, at a lunch in Beijing shortly after the North Korean nuclear test, two senior Chinese Foreign Ministry officials reported that China’s experts believed “the enrichment was only in its initial phases.” In fact, based on what the North Koreans revealed this month, an industrial-scale enrichment plant was already under construction. It was apparently missed by both American and Chinese intelligence services.
The cables make it clear that the South Koreans believe that internal tensions in the North have reached a boiling point. In January of this year, South Korea’s foreign minister, who later resigned, reported to a visiting American official that the South Koreans saw an “increasingly chaotic” situation in the North.
In confidence, he told the American official, Robert R. King, the administration’s special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, that a number of “high-ranking North Korean officials working overseas” had recently defected to the South. Those defections were being kept secret, presumably to give American and South Korean intelligence agencies time to harvest the defectors’ knowledge.
But the cables also reveal that the South Koreans see their strategic interests in direct conflict with China’s, creating potentially huge diplomatic tensions over the future of the Korean Peninsula.
The South Koreans complain bitterly that China is content with the status quo of a nuclear North Korea, because they fear that a collapse would unleash a flood of North Korean refugees over the Chinese border and lead to the loss of a “buffer zone” between China and the American forces in South Korea.
At one point, Ambassador Stephens reported to Washington, a senior South Korean official told her that “unless China pushed North Korea to the ‘brink of collapse,’ ” the North would refuse to take meaningful steps to give up its nuclear program.
Mr. Chun, now the South Korean national security adviser, complained to Ambassador Stephens during their lunch that China had little commitment to the multination talks intended to force North Korea to dismantle its nuclear arsenal. The Chinese, he said, had chosen Wu Dawei to represent Beijing at the talks. According to the cable, Mr. Chun called Mr. Wu the country’s “ ‘most incompetent official,’ an arrogant, Marx-spouting former Red Guard who ‘knows nothing about North Korea, nothing about non-proliferation.’ ”
But the cables show that when it comes to the critical issue of succession, even the Chinese know little of the man who would be North Korea’s next ruler: Kim Jong-un.
As recently as February 2009, the American Consulate in Shanghai — a significant collection point for intelligence about North Korea — sent cables reporting that the Chinese who knew North Korea best disbelieved the rumors that Kim Jong-un was being groomed to run the country. Several Chinese scholars with good contacts in the North said they thought it was likely that “a group of high-level military officials” would take over, and that “at least for the moment none of KJI’s three sons is likely to be tapped to succeed him.” The oldest son was dismissed as “too much of a playboy,” the middle son as “more interested in video games” than governing. Kim Jong-un, they said, was too young and inexperienced.
But within months, a senior Chinese diplomat, Wu Jianghao, was telling his American counterparts that Kim Jong-il was using nuclear tests and missile launchings as part of an effort to put his third son in place to succeed him, despite his youth.
“Wu opined that the rapid pace of provocative actions in North Korea was due to Kim Jong-il’s declining health and might be part of a gambit under which Kim Jong-il would escalate tensions with the United States so that his successor, presumably Kim Jong-un, could then step in and ease those tensions,” the embassy reported back to Washington in June 2009.
But carrying out plans for an easy ascension may be more difficult than expected, some are quoted as saying. In February of this year the American Consulate in Shenyang reported rumors that Kim Jong-un “had a hand” in the decision to revalue the North’s currency, which wiped out the scarce savings of most North Koreans and created such an outcry that one official was executed for his role in the sudden financial shift. The cables also describe secondhand reports of palace intrigue in the North, with other members of the Kim family preparing to serve as regents to Kim Jong-un — or to unseat him after Kim Jong-il’s death.