[OUTLOOK]Spies’ failure hurts policyNorth Korea is often called the intelligence black hole by the U.S. intelligence agencies. Spy agencies look for answers in enigmatic pieces of information they collect on North Korea, and at times they end up making misjudgments.
Donald Gregg, a former CIA station chief and ambassador in Seoul, has told the press recently that North Korea was “the longest-running intelligence failure in the history of American espionage.”
It is no surprise, therefore, that the agencies have a record of twice feeding misinformation related to the North Korea nuclear development program to Washington. In 1998, they suspected North Korea was building a huge underground nuclear facility at Kumchangri, 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Youngbyon where North Korea’s controversial nuclear reactor is located.
A stream of satellite photos indicated that a tunnel there could be a large-scale plutonium reprocessing facility. In order to verify the information, Washington had to agree to give 500,000 tons of food to the North in return for multiple inspections of the site. But the inspectors had to submit a report that there was no evidence of nuclear activity in the empty tunnels.
The second piece of bad information the spy agencies fed to Washington was that North Korea exported uranium fuel to Libya. This also turned out to be inaccurate: It was Pakistan that sold two tons of yellow cake imported from North Korea to Tripoli.
Recently, the spy agencies started to leak information on Kilju, suspected of being a North Korean nuclear test site. This time, however, they are more cautious, because they know that the North Koreans are letting them see what they want them to see.
A stream of satellite images indicates that North Koreans are digging holes and then filling them up with dirt ― suggesting preparation for an underground nuclear weapons test. After the Wall Street Journal carried a report on a possible nuclear test by the North on April 22, American media outlets competitively carried, during the first two weeks of May, related stories leaked by U.S. officials and diplomats who were briefed on the satellite photos.
But they were silenced by Stephen J. Hadley, President Bush’s national security adviser, who cautioned, on CNN’s “Late Edition” on May 15, that North Korea was “a hard target” and that correctly assessing its intentions was nearly impossible.
The White House seems to have decided to watch the next step the North will take, instead of committing the third information blunder by relying on incorrect intelligence reports from its spy agencies.
In recent months, North Korea has done many things to make other countries believe that it is a nuclear power. In February, it declared it possessed nuclear weapons; then boasted of reprocessing 8,000 used fuel rods, and then shut down its 5-megawatt reactor saying it had extracted another 8,000 fuel rods from it.
North Korea knows that its nuclear hoax has led other countries, especially the United States, to believe that the time is coming for the North to attempt a nuclear test. And it must be craving as much propaganda as possible, regardless of its intention to test or not. In that sense, the recent speculative reports on Kilju in the American press served its purpose ― a prelude to the propaganda of a successful nuclear test.
There is a military tactic of mixing falsehood with truth to win over the enemy by creating confusion. This might be the North’s tactic. Kilju could be a decoy to attract the attention of American satellites. Even if the North decides to go ahead with a nuclear test, it doesn’t need a big blast. A nominal one with which it can claim a successful test may serve its purpose. And there are more than 8,200 underground tunnels in North Korea. Isn’t it possible to dig a vertical tunnel for testing from inside a tunnel, escaping the watchful eyes of the U.S. satellites?
The U.S. intelligence agencies attribute their failure to collect accurate information on North Korea’s nuclear program to the absence of spies in North Korea and too few telephone conversations to tap due to scarcity of telephones there. They need help from their counterparts in China and South Korea.
Chinese intelligence agencies may have reliable information sources inside North Korea. But the Chinese don’t believe that the North is preparing a nuclear test. What makes the Chinese believe that Pyongyang is not getting ready for a blast?
Intelligence gathering on the North Korean nuclear program is important, but it is equally important to cooperate closely with the participants in the six-party talks. It is especially important that Washington, Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul share information on North Korea and establish a common strategy for dealing with the country based on shared information. A government policy based on incorrect information can create problems, including unnecessary friction among allies.
It is extremely disappointing to hear that the vice foreign minister in Japan express negative views on sharing information on North Korea with South Korea.
Washington should think about whether its heavy reliance on satellite and electronic intelligence gathering systems has sometimes led its foreign policies in the wrong direction.
* The writer is the editorial page editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by Park Sung-soo