Why is North Korea asking foreigners to leave?

A North Korean soldier looks at South Korea across the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), on Dec. 22, 2011 in Panmunjom, South Korea.
Chung Sung-Jun

If there's one thing experts on North Korea can agree upon, it's that we don't know anything about what's going on in North Korea.

Since Kim Jong Il's death, that has remained true. 

It has seemed, so far as one can speculate, that the transition to the new regime under Kim Jong Il's son, Kim Jong Un, is going smoothly. There have been no signs of overt unrest — yet. The choreographed mourning continues as planned — so far.

But today, several media outlets are reporting that North Korea has asked foreigners to leave. And the question is, why?

Some analysts — namely the KGS NIghtWatch, which is a nightly newsletter that tracks US security threats — say that it's a classic "semi-war state of alert," one that preempts attack or the defense against one.

Others say you can't extrapolate much, except to say that the North wants to focus on domestic security. Perhaps they don't want foreigners to witness what could be a messy transition after all.

South Korea's Chosun Ibo reported that North Korea has been deporting foreigners out of the capital, Pyongyang, and elsewhere.

More from Chosun Ibo:

A Chinese man who took a flight from Pyongyang on Tuesday said, "Foreigners weren't allowed to leave their accommodation after Kim Jong-il's death was announced." The North Korean authorities are also stopping foreigners from entering and are issuing no new visas until Dec. 29.

The move to restrict borders and kick out foreigners suggests that "whoever is in charge is very worried about domestic instability," said Michael Mazza, a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute who studies Asia-Pacific defense policy.

"It's still too early to know how things are going to shake out," he wrote by email. But regardless of whether Kim Jong Un has serious opponents, he said, it's in everyone's interest in North Korea to give the impression of stability. "They don't want other countries thinking there's an opportunity to be taken advantage of."

According to GlobalPost's Bradley Martin, author of "Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty," the domestic threat is worth considering.

He wrote by email:

They'll need time to make sure some in the military haven't reached the snapping point and decided to try to put an end to the dynasty. The military is huge (1.6 million?) and while the top generals have been coddled and given pretty much what they wanted, we've had many reports of hunger among non-Pyongyang military units.

And at least one analyst, Daniel Blumenthal, who worked in the Defense Department as an Asia expert, told GlobalPost he thinks other countries should view this as a time to act where North Korea is concerned. 

"We should be acting to shake things up," he said Thursday by telephone. "We should send a message to young Kim."

What kind of message? According to Blumenthal, we should more rigorously uphold sanctions and go after North Korean crime syndicates, really trace down where those assets are. We should also make strong displays of force around the Korean peninsula to ensure that they know we mean business.

"We should make our demands very clear right away," he said. "It's a chance for us to take the initiative."

Korea Policy Institute's Christine Ahn told GlobalPost earlier this week that she sees this moment in North Korea as an opportunity for a very different kind of action.

In a Q & A with GlobalPost, Ahn said now is the time to reopen earnest dialogue and show the North that the US is good on its word. Offering food aid in exchange for stalling uranium-enrichment programs, for instance. Earnest engagement, she says, is the only way forward.

And indeed, that seems to be the direction the US is moving in, judging from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's carefully crafted statement about a "path of peace" going forward.

Blumenthal's reponse? "Conventional wisdom is usually wrong and usually followed." We tried that, he said, and now we have a regime with nuclear powers.