TOKYO - One should not discount the intelligence value of former president Bill Clinton's recent visit to North Korea to help secure the release of two American journalists accused of entering the country illegally on a reporting mission.
One of the most burning questions about North Korea is the health of "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il, and its impact on the question of succession and ultimately the future stability of North Korea. So far, all speculation concerning Kim's health has come from studying recent photographs, where he has looked gaunt for several months.
In the recent meeting, however, Clinton and several members of his entourage meet Kim face-to-face over several hours, where they were able to observe him close up and in person. In a country where it is virtually impossible to obtain "humint" - human intelligence - this was no small thing.
True, Clinton is not a trained physician, but it is hard to imagine that he was not thoroughly prepped to look for signs of disability. Did Kim walk with a shuffling motion? Were his words slurred? His eyes blood shot? How firm was his handshake, assuming they shook hands?
There may well have been a physician tucked away somewhere on Clinton's entourage, even if not formally included in the list of visitors. He might have been included, ostensibly to examine the health of the two journalists after five months of detention. Or, for that matter, to care for Clinton himself - after all, he is a former president.
I imagine U.S. intelligence agents must have welcomed the priceless debriefing and peek into on the state of Kim's health, mind and regime from America's most seasoned diplomatic players and master of political psychology.
North Korea faces the real prospect of collapsing into anarchy after the death of the visibly ailing leader Kim Jong-il despite reports emanating from South Korea's intelligence services, though not officially confirmed in Pyongyang, that Kim had anointed his twenty-something third son, Kim Jong-un, to be his successor.
When Kim Jong-il succeeded his father, the country's founding president Kim Il-sung, he was dismissed as a lightweight. Compared with his bear of a father, the younger Kim seemed physically unprepossessing. It was thought that he was only interested in making movies and courting starlets. Soon he would fall from power and the country would collapse. All one had to do was sit back and wait.
In fact, Kim Jong-il had been slowly consolidating power for some two decades before he assumed office on his father's death in 1994. He may well have liked to watch movies, but his father made sure that he was thoroughly grounded in communist party affairs. Soon after graduating from university, for example, he joined the Organization and Guidance Department of the Korean Workers' Party.
In the ensuing years he was a vice director of the party's central committee, then secretary of the central committee. By 1980, when the senior Kim was 68 - about the same age as Kim Jong-il is now - the younger Kim was already being addressed as the "Dear Leader" and designated the official heir apparent. From then on he and his father were often photographed together.
Moreover, Kim Il-sung had fourteen more years of life in which to groom his successor. During that time the younger Kim was appointed supreme commander of the armed forces, though he had little or no military experience. Pictures of Kim with former U.S. president Jimmy Carter taken during the latter's visit in 1994 show a seemingly robust man, of 82 (though he would die of a heart attack one month later).
It seems highly unlikely that Kim Jong-il will live into his 80s as he is reputed to be suffering from (depending on sources) diabetes, strokes or pancreatic cancer. So he is far behind the power curve in preserving the Kim family dynasty on two counts: He has done little or nothing, it appears, to groom his chosen successor, assuming he has one, and he may not live long enough to make up for lost time.
Almost nothing is known about Kim Jong-un. There are no photographs with his father, indeed no current photographs at all. By some sources he was appointed to the party's Organization Guidance Department for some seasoning, like his father. Other sources claim it is the National Defense Council.
The Korean propaganda apparatus are beginning to build up the youth they have dubbed the "brilliant comrade", but we are still left with reality a callow youth in his twenties, who's only known accomplishment was to attend a boarding school in Switzerland.
Do the tough generals in North Korea who run nuclear and other programs have enough loyalty to the Kim family to fall behind him? Or, as is likely, can we expect more uncertainty and turbulence and possibly descent into anarchy?
Those are questions not easily discerned from the usual "North Korea watching" methods of studying official pronouncements and mulling over official photographs. That's why any kind of engagement is valuable, even if it does not lead directly to diplomatic breakthroughs.