Watching the North Korea watchers

A major crisis on the Korean peninsula would be the most significant event of our time. If it were a conflict, the Pentagon estimates that there could be around 20,000 fatalities a day in South Korea in its opening exchanges. It’s safe to assume a type of devastation beyond imagination. If the North were to collapse, a nation of 50 million South Koreans would likely become immediately responsible for 24 million impoverished, desperate, politically estranged neighbours. Before, during and after any crisis, there will be momentous strategic, social, economic and political challenges involving all major powers. This raises an important question: who is watching, researching, analysing and reporting on the potential for such a crisis to occur?

Over the last year, international attention has been focused on the Korean peninsula. Between Kim Jong-un, Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump, a perfect storm of populism and strategic change has seen a sound-bite-ready, often undiplomatic, frantic rhythm of events develop. This has led to an explosion in the growth of ‘North Korea watchers’—the community of scholars, analysts, government officers, NGO advocates and journalists who, for one reason or another, commit a portion of their lives to watching North Korea.

For around 20 years, in government and academia, I’ve worked with the North Korea watchers—and they’ve always intrigued me.

When they come together at conferences, workshops or impromptu events addressing emerging crises, they exhibit certain characteristics that highlight a very real cultural identity—a sense of common understanding; recognition of familiar language, symbols and oral narrative; and in broad terms, even a shared sense of mission. Yet they’re an incredibly disparate group.

North Korea watchers come from all walks of life, with diverse educational, professional and personal backgrounds. Unlike ‘Russia watchers’ or ‘China watchers’, few start with a plan to become a North Korea watcher. Most grow into the role, emerging from a specialisation in another field. The rationale for others range from the extreme to the mundane. Still others fall into a comfortable niche between the unquestionable opacity of North Korea, and convenience, opportunism, (mis)fortune and/or media-fuelled egoism. Most will admit, it takes an oddball to dedicate oneself to watching North Korea.

Diversity can strengthen analysis. A hard target like North Korea requires diversity to produce an ‘intelligence market’ of competent assessments. But intelligence is an imperfect market. Competition between individuals and corporate- or politically funded think tanks, along with social media, means the loudest or the most extreme commentator often holds the ear of the policymaker. Regularity and reach do not necessarily equate to analytical competency.

If diversity is strength, then the better known North Korea watchers should provide confidence—among them are a historian educated in St Petersburg, a Korean-born veteran of the intelligence community doing the think-tank tour, an eccentric Englishman with a penchant for poetry, and a passionate antipodean journalist who knows them all. But diversity can also be a weakness.

North Korea watchers disagree on Pyongyang’s aims and sincerity, the capacity of its nuclear and missile arsenal, the wisdom of reconciliation policies, the most efficient modes of engagement and the impact of change on the strategic balance. There are also broad disagreements between geographic subcommunities—dispersed microcosms of the Korea watcher community. Few, if any, Seoul-based North Korea watchers support stronger measures on the Kim regime that could result in conflict. In contrast, Washington-based North Korea watchers are more open to stronger measures. Disagreement is inherent to all policy-watching communities.

The real struggle emerges in the contest for influence. Who should policy- and decision-makers pay attention to? Is Korean language capacity required to analyse Korean peninsula issues? Is education in strategy, politics, economics or nuclear and missile technology required? How long does a North Korea watcher need to be in the field to fully understand the topic? What does a background in government add to analytical competency?

Because any crisis on the Korean peninsula would affect the US, China, Japan, South Korea and ultimately the global economy, the North Korea watcher community is significant and important. Their insight feeds into government intelligence briefs and the decision-making of Fortune 500 companies.

My current research explores the little-known world of North Korea watchers. The mixed-method study explores a core of 40 or so individuals who dedicate themselves to watching North Korea and around 500 others who are intermittent watchers. The study explores the community’s characteristics, social structure, interactions and practices. It also explores the products of the community—the analysis and commentary—and assesses it in the context of best practice in intelligence analysis.

Moon’s crisis diplomacy, Kim’s staged play-along and Trump’s egoism produced a momentary lull in tensions. In his well-received text, The four flashpoints, Australian National University academic Brendan Taylor describes the default position of the Korean peninsula as a Quentin Tarantino–style Mexican stand-off. Given the risks of returning to that default position, it’s important to know more about, and to watch, the North Korea watchers.