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?

With the exception of the 2007–2008 nuclear negotiations during the latter half of President George W. Bush’s second term, the U.S. foreign policy community both inside and outside government have in effect been held hostage to a goal that is unrealistic. If there is anything to be said about Kim Jong-un’s first six years in power, it’s that he is far less willing to authorize denuclearization negotiations with the U.S. than his father was. Whereas Kim Jong-il looked upon Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile program as an asset to be traded away for economic and political normalization, the end of U.S. sanctions on his regime and the signing of a peace treaty between the U.S. and North Korea, Kim Jong-un perceives nukes and ICBM’s to be the pride and joy of the nation. To the third Kim, miniaturizing a nuclear device to an intercontinental missile that can reach an American city is the tried and tested way to keep the United States from launching a military operation centered on the destruction of the North Korean regime. They are not decks in the card to be gambled away, but the king on the chessboard to be protected at all costs. Any hope American, South Korean and Japanese officials had about the younger Kim relinquishing his nuclear program for political concessions was lifted once a missile testing moratorium-for-aid deal was violated weeks after it was signed.

Despite no evidence to date that the Kim regime is interested in getting out of the nuclear business, policymakers in the Trump administration—like their predecessors during the Obama years—are just as wedded to the denuclearization objective. The White House’s impressive campaign in the U.N. Security Council, where three sanctions resolutions have been passed against the regime over the last year, are aimed for exactly this purpose: starve Pyongyang of its energy and money-making sources until Kim comes to the conclusion that there is no way out but negotiating his program away. But to think Pyongyang would hand over all of their nuclear devices on a silver platter or trust Washington’s word that it would be welcomed back into the community of civilized nations is to think that Kim is stupid, short sighted and overwhelmed enough to make the same mistake as the late Muammar al-Qaddafi. And it should be clear by now that Kim isn’t a stupid man; after all, you don’t have to be Einstein to understand that eliminating a deterrent that helps prevent a merciless and public killing a la Qaddafi is about as smart as leaving your car door open and your keys in the ignition in a bad part of town.

Does the intelligence community deserve a kick in the rear on the North Korea file as Sanger and Broad suggest? Yes, they do. But the least the two reporters can do is write a follow up piece in which the policymaking community’s role is put under the microscope. At least the CIA has the “North Korea is a black hole” excuse. Policymakers don’t have that option; in fact, Pyongyang has telegraphed their intentions all along for the last several years.

The foreign policy leadership can either adapt and make the best of an awful situation by containing and managing the problem instead of solving it “one way or the other” when there are no solutions. Or they can continue to bury their heads in the sand and be led by the delusion that the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is a goal still worth exploring.

Unfortunately, the politics of it all is likely to guide the Trump administration’s deliberations on this conflict.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

Image: 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