You may recall that last month Inspector O (See “Inspector O and an Ancient Map,” October 17, 2010) invited me to sit with him in the skybox secretly (or at least unobtrusively) to observe the recently held party conference in Pyongyang. What you might not know is that at the last minute he sent me a message saying he had been assigned to watch a busy traffic intersection in a suburb of Samjiyon. I suspected that was his way of indicating he could not make the necessary arrangements after all, so I turned my attention to other things. My bags already being packed, I took a trip abroad—never mind where—only to discover on my return home a huge stack of things to read about the leadership succession issue, which apparently had come to a head in my absence and which, alas, I had missed witnessing in person. The son, and heir apparent, had finally appeared in public.
The next thing I knew, when I was not even over my jet lag, a message arrived from Inspector O asking me to join him in, of all places, Yanji. It was for that reason I found myself on a dark, cold street corner breathing gasoline fumes that came in clouds from an old Chinese truck idling across the street.
“Don’t turn around. Just walk to the next intersection and turn right.” It was a woman’s voice. It had a nice lilt to it, and since no one stuck a gun in my back, I decided whoever owned the voice couldn’t be all bad. This wasn’t normal procedure for how Inspector O and I started our meetings, but he sometimes liked to be inventive, and I’d had enough gas fumes for one night. I moved as directed, slowly so as not to startle the voice or whoever was watching me from the truck. At the next intersection I turned right, only to find an alley lit by a single bulb over the back steps of what appeared to be a restaurant. On the third step sat Inspector O. He motioned for me to come ahead.
“Fancy meeting you here,” he said when I sat down beside him. He was morose, but I do not consider myself keeper of his moods and pretended not to notice.
“How was Samjiyon?”
O shuddered. “Same as always. Someone must have gotten wise to my offer to slip you into the meeting. Are you talking to people?”
“You mean they really sent you to Samjiyon? I thought you were kidding.”
“Would I kid about something like that?” He looked down toward the alley entrance gloomily. “You sure you didn’t leak? They were preemptory with me, ordered me up to Ryanggang even before I could pack. It was all I could do to get a message out.”
“I spoke to no one about your plan. Nothing to no one. Not a soul.” I waited, but he was silent. “This is not our usual place to meet, Inspector, a back alley like this. Isn’t it a bit melodramatic? Or has something spooked you?”
“Believe it or not, I want to ask you some questions. I thought this was a good place.” He paused meaningfully. “And no, I am not spooked.”
“You can’t ask questions someplace warm, with food and drink?”
O shook his head. “Where have you been, anyway? I was trying to get hold of you for weeks.”
“I move like the wind,” I smiled. “Go on, what are your questions?”
“First of all,” he sat back against the top step, nervous as a cat, “what are you hearing about events in my capital?”
“You want to know what I’m hearing about that? I should be asking you what you’re hearing.”
“Well don’t. Just answer the question.”
I thought a moment. “Lots of the usual, that’s what I’m hearing. A pile of breathless speculation about you know who.”
O mused on something. “Sure, it’s like the son is Lady Gaga or something.” He paused and considered. “She’s not even a Central Committee member.”
I waited, but the inspector was silent. “What an idea,” he said finally. “I’ll bet no one would ever ask to be excused from a plenum if she were a member, even an alternate member. Never mind that.” He looked into the darkness, beyond the puddle of light at the bottom of the steps. “What else are they saying?”
“Well, having caught up on my reading of commentaries about the young man, most especially having read a recent column in the Washington papers, I can’t shake the feeling that experts were blindfolded, spun around several times, and then told to pin the tail on the most likely course of events in the Pyongyang leadership.”
O took out a small notebook and flipped it open. “Nice image,” he said. “Mind if I use it?” He scribbled something on the page. “That’s all you have, or are you just getting warmed up?”
“Do we get to eat after this? Something to drink wouldn’t be bad.”
“We’ll see. Tell me what I don’t know, and don’t tell me I don’t know what I don’t know.”
“OK, I’ll tell you what surprised me, and that was the number of references to accepted wisdom mouthed by many these days that your current leader had a long period to prepare himself prior to succeeding his own father, but that the young man may fumble the ball because his rise to the top has been ‘rushed.’”
“I can’t use sports metaphors.”
“Since the Portugal game.”
I nodded. “As it happens, I remember vividly that few people even knew—much less paid attention to—his father’s training and experience when he took over in 1994. Most outsiders, including ROK President Kim Young Sam, dismissed him as a goofball who would not last a year. One should note that three American and four South Korean presidents later, guess who is still around?”
I glanced over. O had stopped taking notes. “I’m listening,” he said, “but I’m not writing.” He put his pen in his pocket. “Goofball. I don’t even want to remember that you said it.”
“Listen, this whole question of preparation has people on the outside fascinated, fixated.”
“Preparation. Sure, all of your leaders have years of experience before they take high office.”
I shrugged. “Actually, I was making another point. If the father was better prepared to take over the reins of power than most outsiders understood at the time, might it not be wise to assume that the son could also be more ready than we realize?”
I watched O carefully for a reaction. He only gave me a peculiar stare.
“You know,” he said at last, “the fact that you people first noticed stirrings in the succession process after,” he paused, “after the events of August 2008 does not mean it was only then that the machinery was put in motion.”
“Would you care to elaborate?”
“Would I care to spend the rest of my days in Samjiyon? No, I would not.”
“OK, let me give you my impression. We may not know much about the son, but those of us who have studied your country do at least know something about your system.”
O looked away and snorted softly.
“No? Maybe political culture is a better way to phrase it. Anyway, yours has never struck me as a land of slapdash decisions or come-as-you-are actions, especially on an issue as sensitive as the transfer of power. Am I right?”
“Do you want me to put my hoof down once if the answer is yes, and twice if it’s no?”
“I’d guess that planning for this succession has been in the works for many years, maybe since at least 2001.”
O began humming softly, but I couldn’t catch what it was because the back door to the restaurant opened and an old man heaved into the alley a huge bag of trash. He shouted at us, and O shouted something back in Chinese. It didn’t sound like any pattern sentence I’d ever learned, but it seemed to do the trick, and the old man disappeared inside.
“What else?” O had his notebook out again.
“Age. Almost everyone says he’s too young.”
The effect was instantaneous. O sat bolt upright. The muscles in his jaw tightened. He stood up and walked to the entrance of the alley, looked both ways, and then quickstepped back to where I sat. “OK, so if he has to take over in a clatter in the next weeks or months, he will not nearly be as experienced as his father. It’s a given; no one disputes that. But answer me this, will he be much less experienced—or a lot younger—than other leaders throughout history when they clawed their way onto the stage? “
“You tell me.”
He grinned. “Your Henry VIII became king when he was barely 18. Alexander the Great died before he would have been old enough to run for the President of the United States. Genghis Khan was 28 when he began his march across the globe. Just because our man is not democratically elected by your standards does not mean he cannot be “qualified” to lead. Who knows? Never having been governor of one of your southern states may actually be a good thing.”
I smiled to encourage him. O was wound up like a rubber band. Once he got started, all I had to do was to let him talk. He did so.
“In any case, the son is not yet the leader. His father still has him on a leash, a long one but a leash nonetheless. He’s learning to walk the walk but still not in a way that supplants the power or authority of his father.”
I didn’t want to knock O off course, but it seemed worthwhile to risk a question at this point. “What about others in the leadership maneuvering to get close to the son. They might assume health problems could force his father to step aside, or even to fall into the Great Void over the next year or so?”
“Bah! Is that what your experts are saying? Or is that your particular brand of wisdom? Come on, palace intrigue is as old as palaces. Even in Pyongyang the name of the game is to get in the good graces of the leader. You do it to advance a policy, or you do it to settle a festering grudge.”
“And, boy, I’ll bet those are some grudges.”
“If that means ratting on personal rivals to put them in a bad light—and getting them out of the capital onto a pig farm…”
“… or to a traffic stop in Ryanggang…”
“…Or wherever,” O gritted his teeth, “so be it. That courtiers maneuver should not surprise anyone. It certainly won’t surprise a young man who you might safely bet will be steeped in the lessons learned by his father and grandfather about dealing with internal threats. The most dangerous lesson—an effort by our great allies in Moscow in the 1950s to use factions within our leadership to overthrow the Great Leader—is liable to be uppermost in his mind.”
“You want me to take notes at this point?”
“No! Don’t take notes yet. Just listen. The son’s trump card against enemies foreign and domestic is plain for all to see—he has Chinese support, and that counts for plenty. It’s the gorilla in the soup.
“The presence of that Chinese heavyweight Zhou Yongkang last week for the celebration of the Worker’s Party’s 65th anniversary signaled that for all the hiccoughs in PRC-DPRK relations over the years, right now Beijing wants and will pay to get a stable succession of power in my country. What do you call that—a game changer? Who in Pyongyang would be stupid enough to go to the South Koreans or the Japanese looking for support in a dog fight after the Chinese have weighed in?”
“What about the Americans?”
O gave me that peculiar stare again, longer this time. “They had their chance,” he said finally. “They had more than their chance.”
“OK, but what about the odds?” I asked. “Isn’t he stepping into an impossible situation? People say yours is an isolated country; the social fabric is unraveling in the face of smuggled South Korean DVDs and daily bombardment by outside broadcasts.” I figured I’d better smooth that last thing I said somehow, so I held up my hand. “That’s what people say.”
“And if you believe that, I have a bridge across the Amnok Gang I want to sell you.”
“Calm down, I wasn’t saying I thought you’d collapse. I was just telling you what I keep hearing.”
“You should know as well as anyone that North Korea is not so isolated, or as brittle, as your blindfolded commentators imagine. If anything, the U.S. is more isolated from the North than the North is from the rest of the world. OK, sure, we don’t have cable TV with 200 channels. That we are denied the opportunity to watch “Jersey Shore” or CNN’s hyper-news, however, does not mean we are in the Dark Ages. We’re educated and inquisitive, we read Western—and Chinese—literature, we listen to reports about developments on the outside. My friends draw their own conclusions about the images they see on their TV screens. They may have limited access to world news, but they are quite capable of filling in a lot of the blanks. Can I tell you something? Western news reporters who visit Pyongyang feel compelled to label the North as “weird.” You know what is truly weird, and mysterious? The reports they file. No wonder you people are so mixed up and ignorant.”
“Are you finished?”
“You’re fooling yourselves if you think we’re on the brink of collapse, and that one flick of fate’s fingers will send us tumbling.” He waved his notebook in my face. “People adjust, hunker down, raise their families, live their lives. The food situation is not great, but not so dire as your reporters think. The lack of electricity is no worse than in many places in the world—including, I might add, in Iraq, which has been under American control for the past several years, or have I been mislead by your press?:
“One more thing. There are plenty of cars in Pyongyang—despite stock footage on Western television showing empty streets. I can go into any city in the world and find streets in the downtown that have less traffic at high noon than we have in Pyongyang.”
“Congratulations. What about your economy?”
“What about it? It’s not great. So we do without, so what? No one says we live in a material paradise. But as we all know by now, a bad economy doesn’t mean a country will collapse.” He grinned. “Toxic mortgages, anyone? Things chug along.”
“What about reform?”
“NOW I want you take notes.”
He waited until I had out pencil and paper. “It’s hard to see,” I said. “You may be used to writing in the dark, I’m not.”
“Just take the notes, you can read them in your fancy hotel room later. You asked about reform.”
“Yes, I did.”
“How the hell should I know?”
“That’s what I’m supposed to write down, how the hell should you know?”
“No, this is what you’re supposed to write down. Our leadership is and always has been more practical than ideological. Our new leader’s biggest challenge will not be ideology but a political system that gives him more power than is good for any one person. It’s no secret that even a brilliant man needs good counsel—let’s agree that excludes all economists—and the extraordinary luck to find someone brave enough to tell him when he is wrong.”
“You want the job?”
For the first time in our meeting, O laughed out loud. “I’d rather stick a fork in my eye.”
“So, then, what about the party conference?”
“I wasn’t there.”
“Yes, we’ve established that. But the question remains, what happened?”
“What do you think happened?”
“You’re asking me?”
“I’m not asking the stenographer on the other side of this door.”
“OK, here’s what I think. I think that life has been breathed back into your Workers’ Party, its top ranks filled out, its feathers fluffed, and the necessary paraphernalia reconstituted. At long last you once again have a Politburo Standing Committee, a full array of party secretaries, and over a hundred Central Committee members. The problem is, no one on the outside takes them seriously. They are just cardboard puppets on a Popsicle stick stage.”
O growled. “The central party apparatus thinks, acts, implements, interprets, reports, even inspires once in a while. Trust me, the son will have smart people—focused, educated, aware—to draw on. But he’ll also have the usual array of hacks, charlatans, and hangers-on—ambitious, scheming, and intellectually stunted characters that gravitate to any leadership in any country at any stage in history, including yours. What will ultimately count are not the tides around the young man, but how smart he is, how ruthless, how savvy, and how decisive he is in bringing down the hammer when he needs to do so. The test will be how he uses the talented people and recognizes the dross around him; whether he plays varying ideas and approaches against each other simply to strengthen his position or to advance broader goals. The biggest test of all may be whether he knows his mind, and is confident enough in his own skin.”
O stood up, held out his hand. “Your notes, I want them.”
I handed them over. He struck a match and burned the paper, grinding the ashes into the pavement. Without saying anything, he walked to the entrance of the alley before he turned back and waved. “Do you know that song I was humming? It’s from Jimmy Crocket.”
“Jiminy Cricket,” I said. “It’s called “When You Wish Upon a Star.” But I don’t know if he heard me, because just then the light at the back of the restaurant clicked off, and before you could say “gorilla in the soup,” it was dark.