South Korea in furor over intelligence vacuum on Kim Jong-il's death

Getting information out of North Korea is notoriously difficult, but many say South Korea's intelligence service has been embarrassed by playing catch-up on Kim Jong-il's death.

Pyongyang citizens grieve as they visit a portrait of late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il on display in the plaza of the Pyongyang Indoor Stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Dec. 21.

Senior South Korean officials face a barrage of criticism over one question: Why didn't they have an inkling of the death of Kim Jong-il before North Korea’s state media announced it Monday, 50 hours after he died?

After stumbling over questioning from members of the National Assembly, officials were humiliated Wednesday by a report that the Chinese may have known about Mr. Kim’s death within hours after he reportedly collapsed and died on a train.

JoongAng Ilbo, a leading daily here, quotes “an unidentified source in Beijing” as saying China’s ambassador to North Korea informed his government of Kim’s death on the same day.

South Korea’s foreign ministry has said emphatically that China did not get word well in advance, but the sense remains that South Korea’s National Intelligence Service is playing catchup on an event that analysts should have known about first.

A member of South Korea's ruling party, Gu Sang-chan, rebuked the director of the intelligence service, Won Sei-hoon, for what he called “a major major problem in our information-gathering ability regarding North Korea.”

Mr. Won admitted frankly that analysts knew nothing of Kim Jong-il’s death until a wailing North Korean news reader, clad in the traditional black hanbok attire of mourning, announced it at noon Monday.

He did, however, question the circumstances of the death, saying there was no sign the train on which Kim Jong-il was said to have died was still at the station. The basis of that claim was assumed to be video images from satellites, but the broader question remained as to whether anyone in South Korea, or in the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), has a real fix on power-maneuvering in Pyongyang.

Satellite images, informants

Aside from scrutinizing the North Korean media, analysts are fixated on satellite images supplemented by reports from informants using cellphones near the Chinese border. Since the Korean War ended in 1953, there has been no report of an informant within the small elite in Pyongyang at the apex of the armed forces and Workers’ Party.

One problem, in the view of some observers, is that the CIA has either not sought or not been able to cultivate “human intelligence” inside North Korea as it has elsewhere. “The US has been relying on State Department intel,” says Louis Dechert, a retired Army officer with years of service in Korea and Vietnam. State Department officials “are neither trained, motivated, nor budgeted to do it,“ Mr. Dechert says.

Dechert, president of the Combined Korean-US Veterans Association, believes the Chinese “are the only ones with actual eyes on the targets” as a result of their predominant role as North Korea’s only real ally and source of arms, oil, and food.

The failure to penetrate the ruling structure in Pyongyang contrasts with mounting success in gleaning insights from people in the countryside. Contacts have been communicating to outsiders with increasing frequency via Chinese cellphone networks, and rising numbers of defectors have come to South Korea with bits of information.

On the basis of such contacts, says the Rev. Kim Seung-eun, who runs a shelter for North korean refugees, the mood is one of waiting and wondering. “Rather than be mournful,” he says, “We know that people are anxious and nervous” about what will happen now that Kim Jong-il is dead.

Few people, he adds, were aware of the existence of Kim Jong-il's successor, third son Kim Jong-un, even though the elder Kim introduced his son to the world at massive parades and other events in September and October 2010. There has been no question since then that Kim Jong-un would emerge as “the great successor,” as he’s now referred to in the North Korean media, but clearly that transition of power had little bearing on the daily struggle to survive outside Pyongyang and other centers.

Looking for illegal ways to make a living

The Rev. Kim cites a call from a woman near the Chinese border saying daily survival “is really hard.” With pay averaging less than one dollar a month, he says, “people have to find illegal ways to make a living,” including smuggling drugs across the border.

For the first time, he says, he’s getting reports of low level officials wondering about the strength of the new regime. “When they meet, they are asking questions,” says the pastor. “Civil servants and military officers are talking about whether he is willing to lead us.”

Under the circumstances, North Koreans may find themselves better informed by reading leaflets dropped by balloons fired by activists in South Korea.

Activists on Wednesday lofted 10 balloons into North Korea from Imjin-gak, south of the truce village of Panmunjom. The theme of the messages was the transfer of power from father to son as well as reports of revolts against entrenched dictatorships in the Middle East – a topic that goes unreported in the North Korean media.

One of the organizers, Park Sang-hak, was quoted by Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, as calling on North Koreans “to walk out of the yoke of slavery by the Kim dynasty and to regain their freedom and human rights.”

Activists criticize South Korean authorities for permitting people to send condolences to North Korea -- though the government won't be sending a delegation to the funeral and has denied permission for opposition politicians to attend.

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