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Following the surprise death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, U.S. intelligence officials are admitting a disturbing truth to reporters in the media: The U.S. and its allies know shockingly little about the nuclear-armed Hermit kingdom—and it's only getting worse. 

The most obvious sign of our intelligence gap came in our reliance on Korean state media to learn of Kim's death on a train Saturday at 8:30 a.m. Forty-eight hours after his demise, U.S. and South Korean officials still knew nothing of the death, reports The New York Times, merely citing "press reporting" as evidence of the news. "For South Korean and American intelligence services to have failed to pick up any clues to this momentous development — panicked phone calls between government officials, say, or soldiers massing around Mr. Kim’s train — attests to the secretive nature of North Korea [sealed off] in a way that defies spies or satellites," writes the newspaper. This of course follows our failure to discover Pyongyang's secret construction of a uranium enrichment plant until late 2010 and its efforts in building a nuclear reactor in Syria. 

“It is scary how little we really know. I don’t think you can overstate the concern.” an administration official closely following the region tells The Washington Post. The newspaper reports today that administration officials are expecting a total blackout of communication with North Korea as it mourns Kim's death and sorts out its internal upheaval. "No one knows how long this period will last," reports the paper. Giving credence to the blackout, Reuters reports that North Korea has closed off the Dandong border with China, one of the few states it trades with. "We can't go in now, because of the death of Kim Jong-il,"  a Chinese trader tells the news service. "It's all closed off, and basically all the North Koreans are heading back." 

Two of the most critical intelligence gaps that exist today concern the future makeup of North Korea's leadership and its nuclear capabilities. On the latter front, a Korea expert tells the Post it's an information "black hole"

“I don’t think we even know whether they have a deployed capacity” of ready-to-use nuclear bombs, said Paul Stares, a northeast Asia expert with the Council on Foreign Relations. “As far as both the leadership chain of command, as well as the physical communications infrastructure, there’s next to nothing on that.”

On the leadership front, one of the reasons U.S. officials have trouble getting any information is an inability to penetrate North Korea's tight-knit power circle, reports The New York Times. A former CIA official tells the newspaper “What’s worst about our intel is our failure to penetrate deep into the existing leadership. We get defectors, but their information is often old. We get midlevel people, but they often don’t know what’s happening in the inner circle.” Reuters reports that the leadership question has turned into a giant guessing game following the supposed ascension of Kim Jong-un.

Jong-un has had only since 2009 to prepare for leadership, whereas his father had more than a decade under the tutelage of his father and founder of North Korea, Kim Il-sung. Key stakeholders around Jong-un are Jang Song-thaek, the husband of Kim Jong-il's sister Kim Kyong-hui, herself a powerful player at the court in Pyongyang.

"People have been speculating that Kim Jong-un will be serving as a sort of figurehead while Jang Song-thaek is the experienced leader who would actually be in charge, along with his wife," said Jennifer Lind, a Korea specialist and Assistant Professor at Dartmouth College.

Still, as Lind emphasizes, it's anyone's guess. "That's the situation that people suspect, but it's hard for us to confirm just how active a role either Kim Jong-un or his uncle Jang will be playing as a leader."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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