The Intelligence Community Is Not Solely to Blame for North Korea

The lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in Langley, Virginia, U.S. on August 14, 2008. To match Special Report USA-CIA-BRENNAN/ REUTERS/Larry Downing/File Photo

Who deserves to be blamed for not foreseeing North Korea's rapid nuclear rise?

In the 1990s, North Korea was the pathetic miscreant of the international community. It couldn’t feed its people sufficiently; its economy was a trainwreck bailed out by China and the only thing the country had going for it was a large, antiquated military with equipment decades old.

Over twenty years later, Pyongyang is still the miscreant and the troublemaker—and it still totally depends on outside powers for the crude oil and natural gas that power its minuscule economy. But North Korea is a lot less pathetic than it used to be, proudly unveiling a missile program that can theoretically target any corner of the continental United States. How did we all wake up one day to a reality where a cartoonish-looking villain with a funky haircut and a bad waistline could launch intercontinental ballistic missiles as far as 8,000 miles away?

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David Sanger and William Broad of the New York Times dove into this question over the weekend with a months-long investigative report. The central thesis of the piece is that Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile scientists were able to press on with their work against all odds, largely taking U.S. intelligence officials by surprise at critical junctures. “Ever since the United States began tracking North Korea’s efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon,” Sanger and Broad write, “a pattern has repeated itself: American intelligence agencies excelled at forecasting the direction and overall timeline of the program, yet repeatedly missed critical turns.”

The Kim regime got this far, so the narrative goes, because the intelligence community was working on outdated and stale assumptions about the technology the North Koreans were using and underestimated Kim Jong-un’s devotion to developing an operational nuclear weapons arsenal. The Times places the blame on the backs of the analysts, supervisors and collectors of Washington’s vast intelligence bureaucracy.

But what about the policymakers responsible for resolving the North Korea problem before it got out of control? They too deserve a healthy dose of critique—it is the policymakers, not the spooks, who run U.S. foreign policy. Pointing the finger at the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency for not connecting the proverbial dots, while a favorite Washington tradition (see: Iraq and weapons of mass destruction), lets the men and women who craft policy off the hook too easily.

If the spies and analysts at Langley and Fort Meade were unable to pick up red flags at critical junctures of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile development, the policymakers were unable to think outside the box. The lack of imagination on North Korea in the policy world is stunning. Indeed, to this day, even discussing an alternative to the status-quo ante—a full, verified and complete denuclearization of North Korea—is either labeled as dangerous capitulation to a mortal enemy or a political non-starter that would cause Washington to riot. Denuclearization has been the go-to U.S. policy since the George H.W. Bush years, when administration officials were engaged in the same conversations that national security officials are engaged in now.