THE death of North Korea's ``Great Leader'' Kim Il Sung, and the succession of his son, Kim Jong Il, to preeminent power in Pyongyang is a problem for all concerned about that regime. What is Kim Jong Il like, what may he do, how stable will his leadership be? At the core of these and other questions on North Korea's future is a fundamental issue: What do we know about Kim Jong Il, and how do we know it?
There is much commentary about the new ``Great Leader.'' Depending upon whom one listens to, the new North Korean leader is either a radical or a pragmatist, flamboyant or an introvert, reckless or prudent, a dilettante or a deep thinker, a terrorist or a technocrat.
What accounts for such diverse interpretations? The main explanation is the paucity of hard data about Kim Jong Il. In a closed society renowned for its secrecy, Mr. Kim is particularly enigmatic. Very little is known about this person who for years was referred to as the ``party center'' and more recently as the ``Dear Leader.'' Making matters worse is the long-standing contamination of our pool of knowledge by South Korean intelligence agency-sponsored disinformation factoids designed to discredit the heir apparent in the much ridiculed ``Kim Dynasty.''
As a longtime observer of both Koreas, first as a State Department intelligence analyst and subsequently in academic analyses, it is clear to me that one analytical problem bedevils government, scholarly, and journalistic analysts of North Korea: differentiating wheat from chaff. There is a great deal of factually incorrect information about North Korea in widespread circulation. Much of it is the result of honest attempts to read the ``oracle bones'' of North Korean society, intuiting insights about realities there based on random shreds of evidence. Since some of that evidence gets contaminated by disinformation, the reliability of the interpretations becomes more tenuous.
Making matters worse is the circular flow of information in which South Korean, American, Japanese, and other specialists in Korean affairs pick over one another's writings to glean tidbits of information. These get recycled and assume a life of their own with attendant legitimacy. Thus, those individuals who attempt to follow events inside North Korea regularly must deal with drawing conclusions based on grossly inadequate and speculative data. Government analysts cope by trying to secure the best ``sources and methods.'' Scholars and journalists do the same thing by seeking multiple sources that suggest a zone of convergence encompassing the truth.
The trouble is that none of these approaches effectively weeds out inaccuracies and misinformation. North Korea's closed nature compels external analysts to make interpretations, reach conclusions, and suggest policy options based on often-flimsy evidence.
This yields a certain Rorschach-test quality to much of North Korea. Kim is the ultimate Rorschach blot pattern. Because so little is known with great assurance about North Korea's new leader, almost anything can be projected onto his persona and the prospects for his regime. It is crucial to understand, however, that these wildly diverse interpretations of Kim say far more about the biases and agendas of the respective analyst than about Kim himself.
As the Clinton administration tries to come to grips with the new Kim regime in Pyongyang, it should bear in mind two things.
First, it should be skeptical of anyone who claims to know a lot about Kim and where he may lead North Korea.
According to an old Chinese saying, ``Those who talk, do not know; those who do, do not talk.'' Those who talk confidently about North Korea ``do not know.'' Korean specialists who do not talk precipitously are very aware of how much they do not yet know - especially about Kim.
Therefore, the Clinton administration should also seize every opportunity to expand its direct access to North Korea and its new leader so that Washington can maximize its accurate, unfiltered, undistorted information about Kim.
For example, in the short run, why not encourage former President Carter to go back to Pyongyang to explore Kim's readiness to follow up on arrangements for negotiations that stemmed from Mr. Carter's previous visit with Kim Il Sung? Building upon the residual rapport from that visit he could be accompanied by experts qualified to evaluate the realities in North Korea today. This would enable Washington to gain first-hand knowledge of what is occurring now and is likely to happen in the near future.
Over the longer run, if sufficient progress is made in North Korea's relations with the United States and South Korea, Washington should consider establishing a liason office in Pyongyang modeled on the US office in Hanoi that has helped cultivate improved relations with Vietnam. Washington also should prepare itself to respond creatively to any credible overtures that might emerge from Pyongyang in this dynamic period.
The present moment may be a watershed for US-North Korea relations. Washington should take advantage of opportunities to shape the relationship in positive ways based on a clear understanding of the new regime in Pyongyang. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.