The Only Picture Wikimedia has of North Korea

This past Tuesday afternoon at 12:30 pm, our resident North Korea Korrespondant Clava Brodsky hopped over to William and June Warren Hall to listen to the Weatherhead Institute’s Panel, “Leadership Succession in North Korea: Regional and Global Implications.” 

“I know nothing.” So assert Socrates and Sue Mi Terry, a senior research scholar at the Weatherhead Institute and former Senior Analyst for the CIA. Yesterday’s panel “Leadership Succession in North Korea: Regional and Global Implications” featured four regional experts and scholars, who in a moment of academic humility, claimed to know very little about North Korea. Terry caught the audience off guard by beginning her talk with the statement “no one knows anything about North Korea.” Joel Wit, another senior research scholar at Weatherhead, seconded her assertion and urged the audience “not to believe anything you read in the news” when it comes to North Korea. Added to this epistemological complication, Wit furthered, is the problem of political transitions. South Korea, the United States, Russia and China all have either elections or face regime change. In this state of relative political turbulence, speculation about North Korea and its new leader, Kim Jong-un, becomes even more difficult.

Knowing nothing may seem like a hopeless springboard for analysis, but it stopped neither the Ancient philosophers nor our panelists. The speakers divided themselves into roughly two camps. The first included speakers Charles Armstrong, Professor at History here at Columbia and Jeong-Ho Roh, Law Professor at Columbia, who maintained that succession from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un will be smooth. Armstrong prognosticated “no real change,” since North Korea is “not simply a one man dictatorship.” Jeong-Ho Roh agreed and pointed to the country’s Constitution and recent newspaper articles for support. The preamble to the North Korean Constitution states that Kim Il-sung is the “Eternal President,” which sets the stage for continued succession through the family line.

Sue Mi Terry, however, disagreed with the previous speakers’ unilateral pessimism and offered instead that “unravelling is a possibility.” Terry first used logistical evidence in support of her hypothesis: Kim Jong-un simply didn’t “have enough time” to prepare for his new position as the supreme leader of North Korea. Furthermore, he is only 29 years old and “never served a day in the military,” and yet now holds the military rank equivalent of a general. Terry also appealed to North Korean cultural sensibility and asked whether or not the “older elite” will really get behind such a young leader. She thinks they will, but in time of crisis, Terry isn’t sure Kim Jong-un will be able to “lead this place [North Korea].”

If the panelists formed the rational part of the conference’s collective tripartite soul, the audience members formed the appetitive and spirited portions. They booed, laughed and clapped to the various questions posed. One lady asserted North Korea’s right to develop nuclear weaponry; her comment was met with uneasy laughter and blatant hissing.

Amidst all the brouhaha, the audience (or at least this Bwogger) managed to learn quite a bit from the panelists. And if knowing anything about North Korea is difficult, then the conference provided a glimpse into how scholars and senior analysts for the federal government tackle some of our most challenging foreign policy issues. They relied not simply on a political science playbook, but rather amalgamated cultural factors, historical perspective and regional relationships to build their hypotheses.

North Korea via Wikimedia Commons