A South Korean army soldier watches the North Korea side from the Unification Observation Post in Paju, South Korea, near the…
FILE - A South Korean army soldier watches the North Korea side from the Unification Observation Post in Paju, South Korea, near the border with North Korea, Dec. 25, 2019.

A veteran practitioner of the arcane art of "Kremlinology" says the skills honed to decipher what was really happening in the ruling circles of a secretive Soviet Union remain useful today in trying to determine what is up with North Korea's leadership.

"North Korea is the last bastion of the old Soviet-style communism," says Alexander "Sandy" Vershbow, U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2001 to 2005. "There is some intelligence collected about internal developments of North Korea, but it's still opaque. So the old techniques applied to the Soviet Union are still relevant to today's North Korea."

Vershbow, who also served as the Soviet Union affairs director at the State Department during the last days of the Cold War, had his first foreign posting to Moscow in 1979, as a second secretary at the U.S. Embassy.

FILE - NATO Deputy Secretary General, Ambassador Alexander Vershbow, speaks at the Parliamentary Assembly's spring session in Tirana, Albania, May 30, 2016.

Soviet officials were not accessible in those days, he said in an interview. Even those who were willing to meet with foreign diplomats "weren't all that open."

So, like many diplomats at the time, Vershbow became adept at piecing together any tidbits of information that could be gleaned from public appearances and official statements to understand the Soviet leadership's inner workings. Even the positioning of senior officials in a group photograph could yield clues about changes in status.

With his fluent Russian skills, Vershbow studied Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party. "Reading between the lines, learning to understand the different pseudonyms that were used for editorials to reflect different levels of leadership was, as we would say, our diplomatic bread and butter in that period," Vershbow told VOA.

During his diplomatic career, Vershbow was centrally involved in Russian and European affairs, but he also served as ambassador to South Korea immediately after leaving Russia. "So watching North Korea from the South was a logical next step for me," he said.

Kim Jong Un health rumors

The limitations of Kremlinology as applied to North Korea became apparent last month when a number of analysts jumped to unfounded conclusions about a mysterious three-week absence from public view by the nation's leader, Kim Jong Un.

With a lack of any explanation from Pyongyang, the absence stoked intense speculation about Kim's health. It was not the first time he has disappeared from the public eye, but analysts found it highly unusual that he would have missed an April 15 celebration marking the birth of his grandfather — regime founder Kim Il Sung.

A series of unsubstantiated news reports and rumors suggested that Kim had undergone a failed heart surgery, become brain dead or was in a vegetative state. Other reports said he had caught COVID-19 and was in lockdown, or even dead. But he reappeared on May 1 at a fertilizer factory.

FILE - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the completed Suchon fertilizer factory, in this picture taken May 1, 2020, and released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on May 2, 2020.

"There was no real indication, other than Kim did something out of the ordinary, which is he didn't go to the April 15th meetings and that led everybody to jump to conclusions," said Ken Gause, adversary analytics director at CNA, a nonprofit analysis organization in Arlington, Virginia.

"If you have done leadership analysis and Kremlinology for a long time, you will learn that there are always exceptions that pop up. And if you connect the dots in a straight way like we did this time, you can often be wrong."

Gause has closely followed North Korean leadership since the late 1980s with the analysis framework he developed to study the Soviet system. In the early 1980s, he was based in Moscow, interviewing defectors from the Soviet Union and analyzing Kremlin politics and decision making.

"When you have a totalitarian regime, where the media has a certain coded language to it, which we saw under [Joseph] Stalin, which we see in North Korea, you can actually trust those photographs of who's standing next to whom. You can pick up some clues," Gause explained.

Communist connection

Andrei Lankov, a respected historian of North Korea, was born and raised in the Soviet Union. He completed his undergraduate and graduate studies at Leningrad State University in the 1980s and also studied at North Korea's Kim Il Sung University.

"I was lucky to belong to a generation of Soviet specialists who had opportunities to study in North Korea. When I went there, I realized that this was an area where I probably would have a serious competitive advantage. It was quite clear my Soviet background and general interest in Soviet history would be extremely useful," Lankov told VOA.

FILE - Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert, answers a reporter's question during an interview in Seoul, South Korea, Sept. 20, 2017.

Compared to Kremlinology, a significant challenge for "Pyongyangology" comes from the lack of reliable data on key government officials, according to Lankov.

"The Soviet Union was a far less closed society than North Korea, and stories about promotions and demotions, as well as secrets in the top tiers of the leadership, were normally filtered out, eventually reaching the ears of foreign observers," he said.

In North Korea, by comparison, "there are no 'Pyongyang Kitchens' where intellectuals, foreign journalists and spies disguised as journalists are drinking Soju [Korean hard liquor]."

Lankov said the North Korean government has increasingly closed down communication channels with the outside world in recent years, and many experts have lost their sources inside North Korea. That lack of accurate information helped feed the recent rumors over Kim Jong Un's health, he said.

But Lankov still believes "something was wrong" in Pyongyang during Kim's mid-April disappearance. "Something did happen to Kim Jong Un between the 11th and 15th of April." 

How then, can one develop this hunch into a meaningful analysis?

The sixth sense

Soo Kim, a policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, previously worked as a CIA intelligence officer analyzing North Korean propaganda and leadership styles. Like Lankov, Kim believes it is premature to say the analysts were "wrong" about Kim Jong Un's health.

"I think there are certain fragments of information that have yet to emerge in public, and these may never be revealed or confirmed," Kim said.

When studying North Korea, Kim says, you cannot completely rely on patterns or past behavior.

"Dealing with North Korea is not a science. There are nuances, contours, rivets that you sometimes develop an instinct for. Sometimes your instincts are right, sometimes you're proven wrong. This unpredictability creates a constant state of tension internally."

Michael Madden, a Stimson Center fellow, has spent more than a decade running NK Leadership Watch, a website compiling intelligence on North Korea's leaders from all available sources. 

Madden stresses the importance of developing insights to put the available fragments of information into the right context.

"One of the problems we have in the North Korean leadership business is hanging too tightly onto precedents in history. You have to read, there's a lot of books that have been published over the years and academic studies on leadership," Madden said.

"And there are people all over the world following North Korea, such as diplomats, NGO workers who are visiting the country or interact with the country's officials. So it's a matter of also developing a network of people to talk to."

And it takes a long time to develop the right instincts, says Gause.

"You have to become very familiar, not only with the leadership politics in the country but the cultural aspects, the politics, the rules which the actors operate by. It can take a decade or two to really develop that, to a point where you have almost a sixth sense about how the system works."