Just as I arrived in South Korea’s capital to report on the Korea peace process after Singapore on the last day of June, my Twitter feed exploded with outraged comments about a new US intelligence study of North Korea that was leaked to NBC News.
North Korea, according to three NBC reporters and “more than a dozen” unnamed US officials familiar with the new assessment, has reportedly increased production of fuel for its nuclear weapons “at multiple secret sites” and “may try to hide those facilities” in its upcoming talks with the Trump administration. NBC’s exclusive was quickly updated by The Washington Post, first under the provocative headline “North Korea plotting to deceive U.S. on nuclear program” on its opening page.
Basing its report on four anonymous officials, the Post said the classified report was prepared by the Defense Intelligence Agency in the weeks after the June 12 Singapore summit. The DIA is the prime intelligence-collection agency for the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and oversees the analysis of data provided by military satellites and the US Air Force on North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities.
“Specifically, the DIA has concluded that North Korean officials are exploring ways to deceive Washington about the number of nuclear warheads and missiles, and the types and numbers of facilities they have, believing that the United States is not aware of the full range of their activities,” the Post reported. Pointedly, neither the Pentagon nor the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees all US spying, would comment for its story.
Critics of President Trump’s approach to North Korea and various “experts” immediately seized on the reports as examples of Kim Jong-un’s perfidy and Trump’s poor negotiating skills.
“Now we learn there is ‘absolutely unequivocal evidence’ Kim Jong Un is deceiving us,” Representative Ted Lieu, a California Democrat, tweeted. “The observed activity appears inconsistent with a North Korean intent to abandon its nuclear weapons programs,” Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst at the right-wing Heritage Foundation, told NBC.
But it’s hard to see how analysts could leap to such conclusions without actually reading the DIA report and digesting its underlying intelligence.
Leon Sigal, the director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project in New York and the author of Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea, said the new assessment may have been stating the obvious about the negotiations that were launched in Singapore by Trump and Kim but have yet to begin in earnest. North Korea, he told The Nation by e-mail, “is continuing to make fissible material” used in nuclear bombs, a fact that he said should not be a surprise.
“As some of us have been saying, the most urgent step is to negotiate reciprocal steps to halt that production and then to induce them to disclose the location of all such sites,” Sigal said. “How much they have made is the main difference among US agencies. So we start by getting them to declare how much Pu [plutonium] and HEU [highly enriched uranium] they’ve made and how many nukes they have. Then comes the long, hard work to verify that.”
Even John Bolton, Trump’s hawkish national-security adviser, seemed to agree with that analysis. In an interview on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday, he downplayed its conclusion that North Korea might be concealing parts of its weapons program, and characterized the internal debate within the administration as an inevitable aspect of the highly unusual talks Trump has launched with North Korea.
“A series of reports [that] things are going better [or] things are not going well, they are concealing this, they’re not concealing that…doesn’t serve the purpose of advancing the negotiations,” he said. Kim Jong-un, he added, “was very emphatic several times in Singapore he was different from prior regimes. Now we’ll let their actions speak for themselves.” He told CBS that the Trump administration would push North Korea to dismantle its nuclear and missile programs within a year. Few analysts believe that time frame is realistic, however.
On Sunday, in a dispatch from Seoul, The Wall Street Journal added to the barrage of negative stories. It cited two new reports from private US research organizations claiming that Pyongyang was “completing a major expansion of a key missile-manufacturing plant” and therefore “pushing ahead with weapons programs even as the U.S. pressures it to abandon them.”
Again, that conclusion appeared difficult to justify. The new research was based exclusively on overhead imagery of the exterior of the plant that could not possibly identify what was going on inside the missile facility—a point left out of the narratives that immediately spread on social media. A US official who serves as a point-person in Seoul for US policy on North Korea was not available for comment. “We regret that Embassy Seoul is unable to conduct an interview at this time,” a US public affairs officer told The Nation.
The dueling accounts were reminiscent of the role played by the US media in the lead-up to the Iraq War, when anonymous intelligence experts quoted by The New York Times and elsewhere helped build the case for a US invasion. And for NBC, the story was a continuation of the extremely alarmist style of reporting about Kim Jong-un it has adopted since the latest North Korea crisis began in the spring of 2017.
Moreover, given the widespread acceptance of the leaked intelligence report, the DIA’s sinister conclusions indicated that the stories were a clear attempt by anonymous officials in Washington to derail a negotiating process they fundamentally disagree with. Another motivation may have been to persuade the public that Kim has already broken the terms of the broad and somewhat vague agreement he signed with President Trump in Singapore on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
If that’s the case, both the intelligence leakers and their media enablers could be deliberately deceiving the public about the actual status of the US–North Korea talks. They are set to begin shortly after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visits Pyongyang for the third time on July 5.
“There are no solid agreements to breach at this point,” a diplomatic troubleshooter in Seoul who meets regularly with US and Korean officials told The Nation. “We haven’t even gotten to the stage of North Korea making a declaration” of its weapons or its plutonium and uranium facilities. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his position.
The troubleshooter, whose contacts in Korea go back many years, said that the US and North Korean intelligence officials who have been handling bilateral talks since they began in March will soon be replaced by diplomats, including Pompeo and North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho. They will seek to carry out the joint pledge by both sides in Singapore to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” To Kim Jong-un, he said, that means a verification scheme that also includes South Korea and the many US bases there.
“There are no obligations until there’s an agreement in place covering nuclear material on both sides of the DMZ,” he told me over lunch at a Seoul hotel. “Why should they agree until it covers both halves of the Korean Peninsula?” He pointed out that, while then–President George H.W. Bush withdrew US-controlled tactical nuclear weapons from the South in 1991, “North Korea never verified it.”
The North might also push for any agreement to include the US nuclear umbrella over the South, including US nuclear-armed ships and warplanes in the Northeast Asia region. “Let’s have the agenda, and then decide who’s violating it or not,” he said.
But meanwhile, the status quo for both the North (with its small nuclear arsenal and powerful ICBMs) and the United States (with its 30,000 troops in South Korea and a massive, nuclear-armed military force in the Asia region) remains in play until both sides reach an agreement on a peace and disarmament process. As an example of the continuation of US policies, last Friday US and South Korean military officials formally opened America’s largest overseas military base, at Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, about 80 miles from Seoul.
With this new base, US Forces Korea “will remain the living proof of the American commitment to the [US–South Korean] alliance,” USFK commander Gen. Vincent Brooks declared. In a similar vein, in late June the White House said it would extend a standing executive order declaring a national emergency over North Korea’s nuclear threat to the United States.
Given the fact that both Kim and Trump have also taken steps to get talks going—through the North’s freeze on its testing and the US and South Korean cancellation of three upcoming military exercises—it appears that many of the analysts and reporters writing about Korea fail to understand that the Trump-Kim summit marked only the beginning of a process under which North Korea has pledged to work toward denuclearization in return for a new relationship with the United States.
Both Pompeo and Trump have alluded to that kind of deal in recent months, and the secretary of state underscored US intentions to make a fundamental change in US–North Korean relations when he met with Kim in May. The North has reciprocated, said the Seoul troubleshooter. “I can confirm that the North Koreans have talked about an entirely new arrangement based on new security guarantees,” he told The Nation.
Glyn Ford, a member of the British Labour Party and a former member of the European Parliament, addressed that issue at an international forum on Jeju Island last week. The best way for the United States to get the North to move on denuclearization, he said, is to make some “front-loading” gestures reassuring Kim that the US “hostile policy” is no longer operative, he argued.
“Frankly, he doesn’t want to give up his nuclear weapons and his nuclear deterrent, but he can’t keep both,” said Ford, who has made over 50 trips to North Korea. “So he’s looking for a deal that makes him safe. There’s a lot of talk about CVID [complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization],” he added. “Kim’s looking for CVIS—complete, verifiable irreversible security guarantees. Not ones that are temporary.”
Ironically, Trump himself alluded to the top-secret US intelligence capabilities that will be deployed to verify North Korea’s steps toward denuclearization in his now-famous press conference in Singapore on June 12.
Less than two hours after his meeting with Kim, Trump said the North Korean leader had assured him that he would soon close a major “missile-engine testing site” that the United States knows about “because of the heat.” Trump added, “It’s incredible the equipment we have, to be honest with you.” Although few analysts outside of US intelligence noticed, his words were an allusion to a highly classified form of spying known as measurement and signature intelligence, or MASINT.
As I explained in my 2008 book Spies for Hire, MASINT “uses infrared heat imaging, acoustic signatures, seismic data and other information picked up by air and ground sensors to ‘sniff’ for things like weapons tests and nuclear power activity that other countries want to hide from the United States.” The collection of such data is managed by the DIA and the Air Force Technical Applications Center, downloaded to US technical collection sites such as the huge US station in Pine Gap, Australia, and then analyzed and passed on to military officers and national leaders.
MASINT is used extensively by the CIA as a tool in arms control and, more recently, in tracking the use of IEDs and other weapons by insurgent groups in Iraq and Afghanistan (like most of US intelligence, it’s also highly privatized, with secretive companies like Scitor, a unit of military giant SAIC, doing much of the analysis).
On June 21, Defense News reported from Washington that the Air Force has been flying two “WC-135 Constant Phoenix nuke-sniffing planes” for the collection mission around North Korea. These planes, which were first deployed near the peninsula last September, will soon by augmented by a modified C-130 Hercules aircraft equipped with a $5 million modular kit “that allows it to detect nuclear particles in the atmosphere,” the publication said.
The planes fly out of Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa. When a Defense News reporter, Valerie Insinna, visited the base last February, “the words ‘North Korea’ often seemed like the elephant in the room,” she wrote. Because “the capabilities of all these aircraft are highly classified,” leaders “shied away from talking about the country, and when asked explicit questions about North Korea, avoided mentioning the country by name in responses.”
In an interview before the Singapore summit with The Nation, Joseph DeTrani, a former CIA nonproliferation analyst who was a special envoy to the Six-Party Talks with North Korea during the George W. Bush administration, said “sniffing” technologies would be extremely useful once a verification process begins. “When you have an arms-control agreement, you can bring a lot of technology into the picture,” he said. “You have sensors, plus you have other means.” The combination “can be pretty comprehensive,” he added.
But technologies such as MASINT must be augmented by human intelligence, Robert Carlin, a former analyst of North Korea for the CIA and the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, told The Nation. He visited the North many times as a senior policy adviser to the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, formed as a result of the 1994 Agreed Framework between the Clinton administration and the North’s former leader, Kim Jong-il.
“What will be equally, and in some sense even more, important” than overhead surveillance “will be the observers on the ground,” Carlin said. “Satellite and other space-based platforms require human analysis to make sense of the data. These people [who do the analysis] are experts. The best of them are very, very good. But that does not rule out the possibility of error, and I have seen some of that in the past. Observers on the ground, trained inspectors, can see what satellites cannot. They can interact with local technicians, engineers, and scientists.”
But as US analysts consider the verification process, he added, they must realize the differences with Iraq, “where we had unfettered access.” North Korea, he pointed out, “is a sovereign state, not a conquered country. We may get some or even much of the access we feel we need to gain confidence about steps the North says it has taken, but we are unlikely to get everything we think we must have, and almost certainly not on the timeline we think we need it.”
Verification, he concluded, “is going to have to be balanced against the North’s insistence on improvements in US-DPRK relations. That’s not impossible to achieve, though it takes a great deal of persistence and tactical prowess.” (The DPRK, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, is the official name for North Korea.)
Carlin, like Ford, was one of many speakers to address the Korea peace process at the Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity. For three days, analysts and former government officials from South Korea, Japan, China, Europe, and the United States shared a broad consensus that the negotiation process triggered by the Singapore accords is proceeding apace, and that they expect North Korea will soon unveil the steps it is prepared to take to keep the talks on track.
Singapore “was quite meaningful and significant” because it “demonstrated [Kim’s] will for denuclearization” and began at “the highest levels” of leadership, Baek Jong Chun, a former South Korean national-security adviser, told one session. That’s important, added Ning Fukui, China’s special representative for Korean affairs, because the summit shattered the hostility that has characterized US–North Korean relations since the end of the Korean War.
Kim and Trump “met each other and talked peace-building,” he said. “That’s huge progress by itself.”