North Korea is a hard target for the intelligence community to penetrate. Satellites and other classified intelligence capabilities, known as “national technical means (NTM),” monitor the North continuously, but the United States lacks assets on the ground. As a result, it faces considerable uncertainty about North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, economy and internal politics, not to mention its intentions. For instance, U.S. intelligence still does not know for sure how much plutonium the North reprocessed before 1991 or when the North began enriching uranium in quantity—and hence how many nuclear devices it may have.
Uncertainty is not the same as surprise, however. Surprise occurs when North Korea’s behavior does not live up to observers’ expectations. In this sense, while uncertainty is endemic, surprise has been relatively infrequent.
Knowns and Unknowns
The North’s revelation of an enrichment plant—located at Yongbyon and containing two thousand centrifuges, more advanced than most of Iran’s—to Siegfried Hecker and others was a surprise of sorts. That revelation shows the limits of monitoring countries with NTM, which revealed a suspect building at Yongbyon but not its purpose. It also suggests the benefits of Track II diplomacy and other direct contacts for reducing uncertainty.
Yet it was hardly a surprise that the North was on the verge of having an operational enrichment program. Pyongyang had advertised its progress earlier in the year. And a notorious 2002 National Intelligence Estimate had said “the North is constructing a plant that could produce enough weapons grade uranium for two or more nuclear weapons per year when fully operational, which could be a soon as mid-decade.”
The 2002 misestimate was an artifact of an estimating process that may bias analysts to err on the side of expecting a bad outcome too soon rather than too late. Technical experts seem to have suggested the end of the decade, but others in the intelligence community, perhaps knowing of the Bush administration’s eagerness to press the case for scrapping the Agreed Framework, asked if the North could have an operational program sooner. Mid-decade was the worst-case answer. When mid-decade passed without evidence of a plant, the estimate was revised closer to decade’s end. Worst-case assessment may account for another surprise—that no underground nuclear facility was ever found at Kumchang-ni.
Another case illustrates the limits of NTM: the discovery by Israeli intelligence that North Korea was helping Syria to construct a nuclear reactor. The move was far from unanticipated; North Korea long had been known to enjoy close ties to Syria, having sold missile technology to Assad’s regime. U.S. officials had repeatedly said that Pyongyang would sell anything to anyone. But in the end, assessment depends on evidence, not just presupposition.
When surprise does occur, it is important to examine the expectations that produced it, not just North Korea’s behavior. Some expectations are rooted in U.S. preconceptions and beliefs, U.S. domestic politics and South Korean disinformation, all of which shape the context in which assessments are made.
A major source of mistaken assessments is the unexamined presupposition that aggression, blackmail, lying and cheating are inherent in North Korea’s nature—that evildoers do evil. A more sophisticated version of this view is that Pyongyang has always been determined to acquire nuclear weapons. The implication is that negotiations are a waste of time because it can never be dissuaded from nuclear arming.
Yet until last year, the only way for North Korea to make the fissile material it needs for nuclear weapons was to remove spent nuclear fuel from its reactor at Yongbyon and reprocess it to extract plutonium. Yet North Korea stopped reprocessing in 1991—three years before signing the 1994 Agreed Framework—and did not resume it until 2003. Pursuant to a six-party accord reached in February 2007, it shut down its reactor at Yongbyon and has kept it shut until now. In so doing, it has denied itself many bombs’ worth of plutonium. Similarly, the only way for North Korea to perfect ballistic missiles for delivering nuclear warheads is to test them until they work reliably, but it halted test launches from 1999 until 2006 (as it promised William Perry) and has conducted only four sets of medium- and longer-range missile tests in twenty years.
Another unexamined assumption is that North Korea acts out for purely internal reasons. The intelligence community does have some insight into the North’s internal politics—a recent book by U.S. analyst Patrick McEachern, Inside the Red Box, is a rare good example. All too often, however, too much is made of what little is known.
Alternatively, a case can be made that strategic interaction often motivates North Korea. Analysts should look beyond North Korean actions to the United States, South Korea and Japan. For instance, the North began acquiring the means to enrich uranium in 1997—but only after the Clinton administration was slow to live up to its end of the Agreed Framework. It did not resume plutonium production, however. When the Bush administration confronted Pyongyang over enrichment in October 2002 and refused North Korea’s offer to negotiate, the North resumed its plutonium program, stepped up acquisition of enrichment equipment and proclaimed itself a nuclear-armed state. This response was no surprise. And every one of its missile tests came in response to what Pyongyang considered U.S. acts of bad faith. The missile tests themselves were not a surprise: preparations for these tests, as well as for its nuclear tests, were detected in advance.
In April 2009, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Pyongyang for its test launch of a rocket earlier that month. Spurning the UN action, the North immediately began final preparations for its second nuclear test, carried out on May 25. The U.S. embassy reported on a conversation the day before the UN vote, April 23, with a senior South Korean defense official who dismissed threatening statements by North Korea’s Supreme Command as intended to show that “the DPRK’s hostile external situation meant citizens had to pull together, and as a ‘power display’ to send a law-and-order message to counter the increasing economic disorder resulting from decades of economic ‘depression.’”
The South’s Exaggerations
Is it a surprise that North Korea’s economy is growing, the regime is still intact and the transition to new leadership is going smoothly? If so, the surprise may be partly attributable to South Korean disinformation. The recurrent refrain of South Korean officials, not only in press briefings but also with U.S. diplomats, is that the North Korean leadership transition is in trouble, its economy imploding, the regime itself on the verge of collapse. The April 2009 exchange between U.S. and South Korean officials occurred more than three months after clear indication that Kim Jong-il has designated his son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor. Yet the U.S. embassy reported that, in the view of the senior South Korean defense official, Kim “had become obsessed with creating political stability to allow an orderly succession, though Lee did not claim to know who was next in line.” The word “claim” is a diplomat’s version of raised eyebrows.
A week after the UN Security Council imposed new sanctions on North Korea, South Korean unification minister Hyun In-taek predicted that economic desperation would soon drive Pyongyang back to six-party talks. According to a U.S. embassy reporting cable, “Hyun said it was only a matter of time before North Korea returned to the nuclear talks; the only question was when. North Korea faced a severely degraded economy, serious food shortages, and a shortage of foreign currency. It could resist for a while, but not for a long time.” They are not back yet.
In Hyun’s view, trade was down, and the North economy was faltering: “North Korea now faced a very difficult economic situation, similar to the conditions in 1996 and 1997 [when it was beset by mass starvation]. Hyun pointed out that North Korea ‘produces nothing’ and had ‘no meaningful trade’ with the outside world.” In fact, South Korea’s own data suggested otherwise: the North’s GDP was much higher in 2009 than a decade earlier and so was its trade. Hyun predicted more North Korean “fireworks” by mid-October, either a third nuclear test or more missile tests. The prediction of further testing proved premature at best.
To guard against deterministic assessments, the intelligence community now emphasizes the need for alternative hypotheses, an important step forward in the estimating process.
One such alternative is that North Korea has been following a tit-for-tat strategy: cooperating whenever Washington cooperated and retaliating when Washington reneged, in an effort to end hostile relations.
In a press interview on eve of the October talks in Geneva, Kim Jong-il reaffirmed what he had told the Chinese and the Russians, that “six-way talks should be quickly resumed without preconditions.” He had previously committed the North to a moratorium on missile and nuclear tests while negotiations were under way, but “without preconditions” underscored the North’s position that it was willing to suspend uranium enrichment and allow inspections at Yongbyon as well as ship out the new fuel rods needed to restart its plutonium program—but only in return for energy aid. Permanent dismantlement will require a fundamental change in relations—nothing short of an end to enmity, starting with a peace process on the Korean Peninsula.