Gathering Intel on North Korea Remains Challenging

By Stew Magnuson

North Korea’s nuclear weapons program remains clouded in secrecy because gathering intelligence inside that nation is difficult, a leading expert on the country said June 25.

“I think we underestimate the North Koreans,” said Joel Wit, senior research scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

The main problem is that one of the few ways the northern half of the so-called hermit kingdom can be monitored is through satellite imagery, Wit said at an American Security Project discussion on North Korean nuclear, missile and space programs.

The way the intelligence community monitored the Soviet Union during the Cold War was through patterns consistently seen around their bases. That method is difficult when it comes to North Korea, said Wit.

“It’s very hard to predict when they would perform a [nuclear] test,” he said. “I’m not saying there’s going to be a nuclear test tomorrow, but they have future plans.”

The United States is currently keeping an eye out for the construction of new tunnels leading in and out of nuclear facilities, as well as a satellite communication dishes that appeared before a nuclear test in 2009 and this year. If those are indeed part of a pattern, that means a test is not imminent, he said.

“It’s all speculation at this point,” said Wit.

Another concern is China. Recent agreements between the United States and China to pressure Pyongyang may just be “hype,” he said.

Much like the United States, China perceives denuclearization as a priority, but continues to aid North Korea in other ways. While China may not support Pyongyang’s nuclear program, its leaders have certainly not severed the ties to North Korea, Wit said.

The Obama administration sees its concerted effort with China to pressure North Korea as a success, he said. “That is overly optimistic,” he added.

Wit condemned the current administration for its method of dealing with North Korea. He likened the strategy, which he called “strategic patience,” to doing nothing. The problem is that there are no ongoing talks with North Korea.

He suggested “coercive diplomacy” instead. This approach involves a continuing dialogue between the United States and North Korea. It would consist of equal parts coercion and diplomacy.

In order to successfully deal with North Korea he recommended that the Obama administration focus on understanding the importance of political relations, lowering expectations, and being patient enough to sustain a dialogue.

The United States can’t “keep doing nothing” and hoping that sanctions will force denuclearization to happen. “They’re not going to wake up one morning give that all up,” he said of the North Koreans.

There are many myths about North Korea’s incompetence and inability to become a nuclear power, he said. Average Americans don’t take the country’s nuclear weapons seriously and believe that the backward country won’t be able to launch long-range missiles.

“I don’t think they are faking it,” he said.

Topics: International

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