Murray Hiebert / Far Eastern Economic Review – 2005-01-20 12:36:18
WASHINGTON (October 21, 2004) — Recent findings that the United States intelligence community was wrong on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction have prompted soul-searching about other places where American intelligence may have been exaggerated.
There’s probably no country where this matters more than in North Korea, a presumed nuclear power where over the past five decades intelligence-gathering has witnessed mistakes ranging from the inability to detect major nuclear programmes before they developed to alarm about undertakings that, on investigation, turned out to be benign.
Last month, US intelligence leaked to journalists warnings that North Korea might conduct its first nuclear-weapons test before the presidential elections on November 2. American, South Korean and Japanese officials have reported signs that Pyongyang may be preparing to test a ballistic missile in the coming weeks.
But current and former US officials and intelligence analysts say that any reading of what secretive North Korea is up to is complicated by an almost complete lack of understanding of the inner workings of the regime, how many nuclear weapons it has and whether it has developed long-range-missile capabilities.
Donald Gregg, a former US intelligence chief in South Korea and later ambassador to Seoul, calls North Korea “the longest-running failure in the history of American espionage.”
The most daunting intelligence challenge facing the US and North Korea’s neighbours is trying to figure out Pyongyang’s nuclear-weapons capabilities and intentions. US officials readily admit that they don’t know with certainty what types of weapons and how many North Korea has in its arsenal.
A decade ago, based on estimates that Pyongyang hadn’t turned some 9-10 kilograms of plutonium over to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as part of a 1994 agreement to freeze its nuclear programme, the US intelligence community concluded that Pyongyang had reprocessed enough plutonium to produce one or possibly two nuclear weapons. But it never declared that North Korea had in fact manufactured any bombs.
How Many Nuclear Weapons?
In recent years, however, without any declaration of new findings, the language has indicated a greater threat. Jonathan Pollack, who heads the strategic-research department at the Naval War College, points out that in December 2001, for the first time, a declassified National Intelligence Estimate — a consensus document representing all US agencies — concluded that the intelligence community “judged in the mid-1990s that North Korea had produced one, possibly two, nuclear weapons.”
In a report to Congress in November 2002, the intelligence community revised this to say that it had reached this conclusion in “the early 1990s.”
Because the intelligence agencies never explained their new claim, Pollack wonders whether the new language resulted from carelessness or whether their earlier conclusions had been withheld from officials.
Says Jonathan Wolfsthal, a former Department of Energy official who helped store plutonium rods at North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor in the mid-1990s: “We’ve taken what [North Korea] might be able to do, and because it’s been repeated so many times by so many people it’s become common wisdom.”
In April, intelligence officials told The Washington Post that they were preparing to raise the estimated number of nuclear weapons North Korea was believed to have produced to eight from two. Officials admit this increase is largely guesswork and is based on the assumption that North Korea has reprocessed the 8,000 spent fuel rods that had been held in a storage pond from 1994 until Pyongyang expelled IAEA inspectors in December 2002.
But US intelligence agencies are divided over whether all 8,000 rods have been reprocessed, as Pyongyang claims, though agencies agree that at least some have been reprocessed.
In addition to uncertainty about fuel rods, US intelligence officials also don’t know how much plutonium North Korea needs to produce a bomb — the amount varies depending on the type of bomb and the technology used to make it.
How Threatening is Their Arsenal?
Those questions are key to determining “how threatening is their arsenal,” says David Albright, a former IAEA inspector in Iraq who heads the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington.
“If they have two, there’s not much they can do,” he says, because Pyongyang would want to keep them as a deterrent against a US attack. “If they have eight or nine, then they have a sufficient arsenal to attack a country like Japan or South Korea and have some on reserve . . . That’s much more threatening.”
Uncertainties over Missile Capabilities
US intelligence also is uncertain about the capabilities of North Korea’s missile programme. Although US agencies believe that Pyongyang developed Taepodong 2 long-range missiles a few years ago, an official says “no one knows” if it has managed to “weaponize or miniaturize” its plutonium supplies to fix them onto a missile.
Questions also surround North Korea’s highly enriched uranium programme, about which Washington confronted Pyongyang in October 2002, setting off the current stand-off. US officials say they first detected the programme when North Korea approached alleged rogue scientist A.Q. Khan’s network in Pakistan and companies in Japan and Germany in the late 1990s in search of supplies.
Beyond that, officials admit, they have little knowledge about the programme, whether it’s running and where. A US official who works on North Korea says some intelligence agencies are convinced that a rudimentary programme will be running by early 2005, producing enough enriched uranium for one additional weapon each year, but others believe that it won’t be operational until 2007 and could add six new weapons per year.
US intelligence agencies also have only a rudimentary understanding of the Kim Jong Il regime, how it makes decisions and how far it plans to go with economic reforms. “The real issue all along is what is the North Korean motivation, why are they doing this [developing nuclear weapons] and what do they want [from the US],” says Peter Hays, who heads the Nautilus Institute, a private think-tank, and who worked in North Korea in the 1990s. “That’s where American intelligence has a yawning gap.”
Agencies have made a number of mistakes on North Korea over the years. In the early 1990s, after the Soviet Union split apart and suspended its aid to Pyongyang, many intelligence analysts predicted that the regime would collapse.
Then, in 1998, American intelligence concluded that Pyongyang had developed a second underground plutonium-reprocessing site in a tunnel at Kumchang-ni, but when North Korea finally allowed US inspectors in, it was empty.
Given North Korea’s penchant for secrecy, intelligence assessments on Pyongyang involve more detective work and consensus-building among analysts than many countries. Current and former US officials cite many reasons why US intelligence is so inadequate.
For starters, satellites have limited ability to monitor nuclear and missile activities because so much of the work is done underground, leaving analysts at “the mercy of conjecture,” says James Laney, a former ambassador to Seoul who earlier did intelligence work on North Korea. North Korea installed fibre-optic communications in the early 1990s, cutting off access to signals between military units that could be intercepted earlier.
Gregg, who has visited North Korea several times in recent years, says that gathering human intelligence is particularly daunting because it is almost impossible to recruit North Koreans. “They were deeply indoctrinated,” Gregg says. James Hoare, a former chief British diplomat to Pyongyang who has long worked on Korean affairs, adds that he has “never seen much convincing information” from defectors. “They tend to confirm whatever the story is at the moment.”
As North Korea opened up to weapons inspectors, foreign aid workers and Western diplomats in the 1990s, the amount of information about the country has exploded, but many US officials fret that the quality of analysis has actually deteriorated, at least in part because some veteran analysts have left or retired in recent years. “Most [analysts] don’t understand the place,” says Joel Wit, a former State Department official who led the team to Kumchang-ni in 1998.
Laney, the former ambassador, worries that the lack of understanding is dangerous. “I’ve frankly been dismayed through the years that we can walk up to the edge of a serious confrontation without knowing what will trigger it,” he says.
Others are concerned that the judgments of intelligence analysts will be flawed if they are influenced by larger political considerations, as happened in Iraq. “The problem is that [intelligence] work gets politically loaded or that the judgments . . . offered may reflect judgments about where policy winds are blowing,” says Pollack of the Naval War College.
Has the intelligence community learned lessons for North Korea from mistakes in Iraq? “The analysts have, but I’m not sure our political leaders have,” says former IAEA inspector Albright. “They’re vulnerable to taking information . . . and jumping to conclusions that aren’t supported by the facts.”
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