WASHINGTON – Conflicting accounts from U.S. intelligence about the status of North Korea’s nuclear weapons development underscore just how difficult it is for American spy agencies to penetrate its inscrutable regime, officials and experts said.
The world’s most powerful intelligence apparatus is often left to guesswork when it comes to tracking a regime that has cut off its population from the outside world.
“I also have to say that North Korea, of course, is now and always has been one of the, if not the, toughest intelligence targets,” U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper told lawmakers at a hearing Thursday.
The spy chief acknowledged that the North’s young, untested leader, Kim Jong Un, remains a mystery figure whose motives and mindset are still largely unknown. “There’s no telling how he’s going to behave,” Clapper remarked.
The United States gleans most of its intelligence from satellites tracking North Korean military movements, as Western spies cannot operate effectively in such a tightly controlled dictatorship. “It is virtually impossible to run a human spy in the North and penetrate the Korean state,” Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and fellow at the Brookings Institution, said.
The vexing challenge posed by Pyongyang was driven home when a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report came to light Thursday that seemed to paint a more dangerous picture of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, unlike previous accounts from American officials.
The DIA report, revealed by a lawmaker from Colorado with a keen interest in missile defense funding, concluded that the North likely has succeeded in miniaturizing a nuclear warhead that could be placed onto a ballistic missile.
Senior U.S. officials, caught off guard by the report, played down the document as a “low-level” assessment and insisted Pyongyang does not have nuclear-armed missiles ready to fire, and that war on the Korean Peninsula remains a remote possibility.
North Korea has “pieces” of a nuclear program “but they haven’t shown the ability to deploy nuclear weapons,” said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
This message was reinforced Friday by White House spokesman Jay Carney, who insisted that it was “our assessment that North Korea has not demonstrated the capability to deploy a nuclear-armed missile.”
But officials admitted that what the North has or has not developed is uncertain. The United States and its allies must now wait for Pyongyang’s next move, amid intense speculation its regime will launch medium-range missiles in the coming days in a show of military might.
In other countries, U.S. spies would be scooping up “chatter” at such a moment of crisis. But hermetically sealed North Korea, with little Internet access and a restricted number of mobile phones, renders American eavesdropping tools less useful.
Cellphones, however, have arrived in the more privileged capital, Pyongyang, where around 1 million of the devices are in use, providing an opening to foreign intelligence agencies, said David Maxwell, a retired U.S. Army colonel who served with special forces units in Asia.
Nevertheless, he said that trying to discern Pyongyang’s plans and internal rivalries was beyond the reach of the U.S. spy agencies.
“We can collect a lot of information from satellites and from other means on capabilities, but intentions are really key. The way the system is designed, they are able to protect elite decision-making and the elite apparatus,” said Maxwell, associate director at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies.
No high-level official has defected from North Korea since 1997, he noted, adding, “I just don’t think anyone, not the Chinese, not the Russians, is able to penetrate the inner circle to be able to determine with any amount of certainty what their intentions are.”
And while North Korea’s clumsy state propaganda is often fodder for ridicule, the regime has proved adept at fooling Western spies while hiding sensitive weapons work underground. “The North Koreans are masterful at deception,” Maxwell said.
In 1999, U.S. officials grew alarmed over what appeared to be a nuclear facility, but after an inspection was arranged following laborious negotiations the site turned out to be nothing more than a large hole in the ground.
“When we do see things, it’s because they want us to see them,” Maxwell said. “They know we’re watching.”