North Korea: "Intelligence" and intelligence

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By Sol Sanders

Sol W. Sanders

July 22, 2003

The domestic circus turning “intelligence” into a political football increases the already excruciatingly difficult problem of how to cope with North Korea. For perhaps more than Iraq, judgments are labyrinthine on what is happening under the most repressive regime even in the history of Communism.

What we know, of course, is that Juche, Pyongyang’s official version of totalitarianism, was supposed to give North Korea self-sufficiency. Instead it bankrupted the society through diversion of resources to weapons from a starving population. Only by selling weapons to pariah states could the regime have survived, after famine has taken the lives of more than two million people in a population of less then 20 million.

Proliferation of weapon of mass destruction Ý nuclear, biological, and chemical Ý were a concern of U.S. policy since the end of World War II and the development of nuclear weapons. The major issue of the decades of the Cold War was the effort to prevent the descent of the conflict into nuclear war which would have meant destruction of both adversaries. And it was in the interest of both the Soviet Union and the U.S. to limit the “nuclear club” to as few members as possible.

Ironically, despite the collapse of the Soviet Union just over a decade ago, the problem of proliferation has become an even greater concern. The inability to limit transfers of technology, many of them dual use Ý that is, applicable to both warfare and civilian life Ý and the increasing spread of technology in the global economy, has led to potential proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to a widening gamut of countries. These now include regimes which have sponsored state terrorism and which are so innately unstable that the mere possession of the weapons constitutes a threat.

Limiting “the nuclear club” was not successful. First the Soviet Union, France, Israel, for a time South Africa, acquired nukes. An American campaign of sanctions failed to halt both Pakistan and India. There remains the constant threat a rogue state like Libya may acquire nuclear weapons. Now both Iran and North Korea appear to be on the verge.

U.S. concern about proliferation took a quantum leap with the events of 9/11. The sophistication of Al Qaida terrorists — their use of our own infrastructure and latest technological tools Ý not only dramatized American vulnerability, but indicated a new threat had developed: the possibility international terrorists could obtain nuclear, chemical or biological weapons? Even a “dirty bomb” Ý using radioactive materials encapsulated in a conventional weapon Ý constitute a major threat.

That possibility is implicit if Pyongyang becomes a nuclear power. For North Korean nuclear weapons Ý coupled with their already demonstrated competence in missiles — not only threatens the balance of power in Northeast Asia, possibly setting off an arms race in which Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan might join China as nuclear powers. But given North Korea’s history of sales to pariah states and its desperate need for resources to maintain its collapsing economy, Pyongyang could become the source of arming terrorists, whether remnants of Al Qaida, other Islamcist terror groups like Hizbullah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Kashmiri groups, ETA Basque terrorists in Spain, Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers, France’s Corsican terrorists, dissident IRA, etc., etc. Far fetched as it might once have seem, given the surprise of the 9/11 events and the nihilism which has driven these groups to take the lives of innocents, it must be a prime consideration.

In a sense, the present situation is a redux of the Clinton Administration’s crisis in 1993-4 when it discovered North Korea was progressing toward nuclear weapons. We are told President Clinton considered a preemptive strike. Instead, with the endorsement of our allies, the South Koreans and the Japanese, we entered into a “Framework” wherein we promised to help turn North Korea’s economy with massive aid Ý even including building nuclear power reactors Ý in exchange for their dropping their nuclear weapons. We know now that neither happened because Pyongyang had no intention of changing.

Current news that a second plutonium processing plant, as yet unknown, might be operating is another indication of how little we know about North Korea. The South Koreans, who perforce know more, have been less than cooperative in sharing Ý although there seems to be some change now. Tokyo’s intelligence may be compromised through Pyongyang ties to Japan’s organized crime and reportedly to some Japanese politicians. A sudden failed major project with a Chinese businessman about which Beijing seemed to be ignorant may indicate that even they Ý despite the Communist brotherhood and being Pyongyang’s principle supplier Ý may have less insight than supposed into Pyongyang leadership mysteries.

With difficult decisions ahead, one can only hope that there will be more intelligence and less demagoguery about “intelligence”.

Sol W. Sanders, (, is an Asian specialist with more than 25 years in the region, and a former correspondent for Business Week, U.S. News & World Report and United Press International. He writes weekly for World

July 22, 2003

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