‘Hard Target’ North Korea Poses Challenge to U.S. Spying

‘Hard Target’ North Korea Poses Challenge to U.S. Spy Effort
North Korean soldiers stand guard at the Joint Security Area (JSA) of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in the truce village of Panmunjom, north of Seoul, South Korea. Photographer: Seokyong Lee/Bloomberg News.

If Stalin’s Russia was “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” as Winston Churchill described it in 1939, Kim Jong Un’s North Korea 72 years later is an even more inscrutable intelligence target.

The technological revolution that has brought the Internet, smart phones, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the outside world to other repressive regimes has just begun lapping at North Korea’s shores, mostly along the Yalu River on the Chinese border.

“It’s a very hard target,” said U.S. Representative Mike Rogers, the Michigan Republican who heads the House intelligence committee, in a telephone interview yesterday. “There is no freedom of movement, in, out or once you’re in; and North Koreans are not very well connected to each other, let alone to the outside world.”

Job One for the U.S. and its allies is deciphering who’s in charge in Pyongyang amid reports that after 73 years of one-man rule, Kim, who will turn 28 next month, will share power with his uncle, Jang Song-thaek. Intelligence analysts also will be watching for signs of the balance of power between Kim and the country’s powerful military, although they will be doing so from afar because North Korea hasn’t invited foreign leaders to the funeral of Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il.

Not a Surprise

Although it wasn’t disclosed by North Korea for some 48 hours, the sudden death of the “Dear Leader” came as no surprise, said a U.S. official in an e-mail message. U.S. intelligence agencies had known that Kim was at an increased risk of a coronary event or other medical emergency since his 2008 stroke, and had anticipated he would die with little warning, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified matters.

A simple fact is at the heart of the intelligence challenge posed by North Korea, David S. Maxwell, the associate director of the Security Studies program at Georgetown University in Washington, said in an interview. “What makes it hard for us to penetrate is the same control of information that keeps the regime in power,” he said.

North Korea relies on an 11-year-old network of underground fiber-optic cables that’s harder for outsiders to tap -- and easier for the authorities to monitor -- than are cell phones, satellite communications or the Internet.

Recruiting spies and extracting human intelligence from North Korea is even more difficult, in part because there is no U.S. embassy in Pyongyang to provide cover for U.S. intelligence officers.

Foreigners Followed

Few foreigners are allowed to visit, and those who do are followed everywhere, regardless of their status or their country’s relationship with Pyongyang. In late 1980, Justin Nyoka, a Zimbabwe cabinet minister who was visiting the North Korean capital with Prime Minister Robert Mugabe, an admirer of “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung -- Jong Un’s grandfather -- made the mistake of visiting his hotel lobby in search of cigarettes without a government minder. He was immediately seized and returned, politely but firmly, to his room, he later said in an interview.

North Koreans rarely are permitted to travel abroad, and those who are have been thoroughly vetted, have escorts everywhere and know their spouses, children, parents and siblings are under the watchful eyes of the police back home.

Families Targeted

Trying to recruit traveling Northerners, said Maxwell, is virtually impossible, and not only because they are never alone. Three generations of their families would pay for any betrayal or even any gossip, he said. After the late Hwang Jang Yop, an adviser to Kim Jong Il, defected to South Korea in 1997, his wife and a daughter committed suicide and three other children were imprisoned in labor camps, according to the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo.

While the U.S. relies on allies -- and sometimes adversaries -- for intelligence on other so-called “hard target” countries such as Iran, Cuba, Russia and China, reliable sources on North Korea are few and far between.

The Chinese have limited access and they remain reluctant to share very much because they suspect that the U.S. seeks to overthrow the Pyongyang regime and keep troops stationed in South Korea as part of an effort to contain China, said a U.S. official with access to classified intelligence. Chinese reports on the health of Kim Jong Il “were consistently rosy,” said the official.

Healthier Leader

Germany, where for years North Korea’s leaders sought medical treatment, has been a “declining resource” since communist East Germany collapsed in the 1980s, said the official. It may decline further, the official said, as Chinese medicine improves and because the young Kim will require less frequent treatment than his ailing father did.

These challenges are compounded by the fact that, despite the country’s backwardness, North Korea’s intelligence tradecraft is “something to be reckoned with,” said Rogers.

Pyongyang concealed its support for Syria’s secret nuclear program for some time, even as both countries were closely watched by adversaries. It did so in part by using foreign companies to ship material and also, a senior U.S. official told reporters in 2008, by putting curtain walls and a false roof on a Syrian reactor to conceal its resemblance to a North Korean one at Yongbyon. The disguise ultimately failed, and an Israeli air attack destroyed the reactor on Sept. 6, 2007.

U.S. Interests

The difficulties of collecting intelligence on North Korea are offset, at least in part, by the fact that U.S. interest in the so-called hermit kingdom is concentrated on Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, its weapons exports, its support for terrorist groups and the military threat it poses to its neighbors. Troop movements, missile tests and other military actions are largely visible to reconnaissance satellites.

Economic intelligence, which is of keen interest in China and elsewhere, is less important because the country’s trade is so limited. Reports about internal stability -- considered critical in countries such as Iran, Egypt, Syria and now perhaps Russia -- are less important in the case of Pyongyang because analysts don’t expect the kind of rapid change that’s occurred elsewhere, said a second U.S. official with access to intelligence material.

Not immediately knowing about Kim’s death was of little practical importance because there turned out to be no need for quick action, the first official said.

Sharper Picture

The intelligence picture from North Korea has been growing sharper in recent years, albeit slowly. Earlier this year, in a rare victory against Pyongyang’s weapons proliferation, the U.S. Navy intercepted a ship it suspected was carrying North Korean missile parts to Myanmar and forced it to return to North Korea.

Intelligence on the North also has improved because South Korean intelligence officers, who have linguistic and cultural advantages, are spending less time tailing their own politicians and more time pursuing targets in the north, said the second official.

“Over the past three or four years, we have gotten better,” said Rogers. “It requires incredible persistence, but we’ve been able to build on small successes.”

Technology may finally turn the tide, as it’s doing elsewhere, by forcing even North Korea to change, even if not to abandon its reclusive and repressive ways.

Barbro Elm, the Swedish ambassador to North Korea, recently reported that she had taken a trip from Pyongyang to three other cities and had strong domestic cell phone service the entire way. She had international service only when she was near the Chinese border and could connect to Chinese towers.

New Cellular Network

The Egyptian firm Orascom Telecom Holding SAE is building a 3G cell network in the North, according to a Nov. 1 report by Alexandre Mansourov of the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, a policy research group in San Francisco. The report said that only about 3 percent of the country now has service, although it would become harder to monitor as it grows.

While the country’s per-capita GDP is just $1,800 and a cell phone costs more than $300, wrote Mansourov, the North Korea mobile communications industry has “crossed the Rubicon,” and the government “can no longer roll it back without paying a severe political price.”

Communication in North Korea, he continued, “has transitioned from a panopticon of total control to a voluntary compliance system, where the government makes an example of a select group to try and force the rest of the country to stay in line.”

While that may in time prove to be bad news for the young Kim as he ponders the fate of dictators elsewhere, it may be the best news out of North Korea for spies since the country was founded in 1948.

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