Why North Korea Is A Black Hole For U.S. Intelligence: As Tensions Rise With Pyongyang, Don’t Expect Answers From The CIA — And Raises The Chances Of Strategic Surprise
John Schindler has an April 18, 2017 article on The Observer, with the title above. Mr. Schindler writes that “the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) [North Korea],” is “the weirdest country on Earth — a deeply militarized Communist regime, almost hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world, and governed by a dynastic family in pre-1789 fashion. That the DPRK possess nuclear weapons means there’s nothing to laugh about here — notwithstanding the fact that Pyongyang lacks the ability to accurately get those nukes anywhere very far,” he wrote. Mr. Schindler should have added ‘by conventional means,’ to that last sentence. I wouldn’t put it past this regime to try and sneak a disguised merchant ship near a major U.S. port with a nuclear weapon inside the cargo hold. But, I digress.
Mr. Schindler then notes the intelligence black hole that is North Korea, and, the fact that “no one [including China] seems to know what makes North Korea tick.” “Most Western ‘experts’ on the regime have no idea what they’re talking about,” as he has written before, and, “there’s a very good case [to be made] that North Korea actually may welcome confrontation with the United States — even a nuclear confrontation. While Pyongyang’s about preemptive nuclear strikes against friends of the United States (read: Japan and South Korea), sounds’s far-fetched, it’s best to side with caution and accept the fact that the DPRK might do exactly that,” Mr. Schindler warns.
Mr. Schindler then provides an overview of a regime behaving badly over a long period of time, from hijacking the USS Pueblo, to blowing a civilian airliner out of the sky, shelling their South Korean neighbor, torpedoing a South Korean frigate, and, “the weirdly sinister habit of perpetuating kidnappings abroad,” and so on.
“Given the threats emanating from the DPRK — above all, the nuclear ones — it’s not surprising that our Intelligence Community (IC) devotes significant resources to trying to figure out what’s going on inside the hermit kingdom,” Mr. Schindler writes. “But, that’s extraordinarily in practice,” he adds. In the Intelligence Community, North Korea is labeled a ‘hard target’ for obvious reasons. As Winston Churchill might say, North Korea “is a mystery, wrapped in a riddle, inside an enigma.”
“In fairness to IC analysts,” Mr. Schindler acknowledges, when “trying to make sense of what’s going on inside the DPRK, most of their usual sources of information work poorly — if at all when it comes to this kind of hard target. We have no embassy in Pyongyang, which means the CIA’s usual practice of employing spies masquerading as diplomats to gain access to the host country’s secrets — doesn’t apply. Neither do American firms do business in North Korea, so the CIA’s other option of employing case officers under non-official cover — called NOCs in the spy trade — posing as business people doesn’t apply either.” These sources and methods usually pay off in helping to piece together a picture, or at least a partial one — of the particular issue that is being targeted.
“Even if Americans could somehow get inside North Korea, the 24/7 monitoring given to suspect foreigners in the country, means they’s be hard pressed to get any spying accomplished,” Mr. Schindler correctly observes And, even if we were lucky enough to get an American spy inside North Korea, or even a friendly foreign intelligence operative, there’d still be the issue of exfilktraring the data/intelligence out of North Korea clandestinely — which also would be a major challenge and fraught with danger. “Pyongyang, trusting no one, watches even its friends closely. A senior KGB official who did a tour in North Korea in the waning days of the Cold War, admitted he was under surveillance by his ‘allies’ in Pyongyang than he had experienced in his long espionage career.” The retired KGB official, told Mr. Schindler that “he was watched more invasively [and intensely], than he had ever been by the FBI when he was doing a tour of duty in the U.S,” at the height of the Cold War.
“Even the NSA, which supplies the lion’s share of intelligence in our IC [or at least it did pre-Snowden], can’t get much access to Pyongyang,” Mr. Schindler writes. “Pyongyang has buried most of its communications underground, making therm immune to conventional interception, while cell phones are almost unknown there. Neither can the NSA tap into the country’s computer networks easily, since North Korea barely has Internet access. Being all but sealed off from the world in IT terms, means that the DPRK represents a very hard target for the NSA, as well as a denied area overall for American spies.”
“Our spy satellites offer some indication of what’s going on north of the DMZ; but, without corroborating HUMINT and SIGINT, that secret imagery is a lot less useful than it could be. The only way to get fresh intelligence about what’s happening in North Korea,” Mr. Schindler writes, “is by recruiting North Korea’s diplomats serving abroad, (many of whom are really spies). That’s a pretty unsavory bunch, since DPRK embassies are outposts for crime — counterfeiting, drug dealing, and various frauds — more than diplomacy; and, any spies recruited will be impossible to maintain contact with once they return home.” Otherwise, they could become defectors, Mr. Schindler notes, “but, their information is hard to authenticate and their information goes stale pretty quickly, “from the moment he comes over to our side. In short,” Mr. Schindler writes, “defectors can be valuable sources about the DPRK’s inner workings, but they are no panacea.”
“Therefore,” Mr. Schindler concludes, “we face the dangerous situation where North Korea, a rouge nation possessing nuclear weapons, and no shortage of aggression, remains a black hole for American intelligence. For decades, the IC has tried hard to get information to help our decision-makers in Washington deal more effectively with Pyongyang, yet time and again we’ve been surprised by North Korea’s latest gambit. As the stakes of this game are getting higher, with increased nuclear saber-rattling, so to are the potential missteps,” and strategic miscalculation and a nasty Black Swan surprise.
Mr. Schindler’s observations are on the mark; but, not new. The North Koreans are masters at hiding and obfuscating what we think we see, and what we think we might know — which isn’t much. And, Pyongyang has an elaborate, complex, pervasive counterintelligence apparatus and a ubiquitous presence that enables them to ferret out potential spies within their midst — who are swiftly, and brutally dealt with. Mr. Schindler did not mention it; but, our South Korean allies, whom one would guess might have the best chance of infiltrating a human operative inside the country, are also highly unsuccessful at doing so. Who knows if China has been any more successful in getting human spies inside the country; but, even if Beijing does, would they share any of that potentially invaluable intelligence with us? Maybe, if Beijing thought doing so might prevent an outbreak of major hostilities, and/or a preemptive military strike by the United States and South Korea.
George Orwell’s all-knowing, all-seeing, governmental entity, with built-in incentives to spy on one’s neighbor and friend/s — has matured to perfection in North Korea. North Korean nuclear scientists, and others who might be of intelligence interest to the IC, rarely if ever, travel outside the country. And, when they do, they are ‘chaperoned’ by the regime’s minders, who monitor their every move. Additionally, on these rare occasions when these officials do travel abroad, their loved ones and family members are subject to being banned to the gulags, or if they are lucky enough — executed — should their loved one decide to defect overseas.
Finally, because we lack the kind of intelligence we need to better understand leadership intentions, and what actions they are, and are not likely to take, as well as what carrot and stick approach might work — we are also very susceptible to misunderstanding what is truly going on; and/or drawing false conclusions that may lead to a catastrophic intelligence failure. North Korea is a clear example where Napoleon’s adage that “one well-placed spy is worth two battalions,” is demonstrably evident. Except now, one well-placed spy in North Korea is worth the city of Seoul. This also brings home the notion of why a preemptive military strike on North Korea’s nuclear weapons infrastructure may be the best course of action. To allow Pyongyang the first move, could result in a devastating nuclear attack, and the loss of civilian life and infrastructure that may take a half century to recover. V/R, RCP