LEFT IN THE DARK: N. Korea assessments hampered by limited or bad U.S. data

February 15, 2013

By YOSHIHIRO MAKINO/ Correspondent

Japan has only limited access to U.S. intelligence about North Korea's nuclear program, even though it relies heavily on its ally for an informed view of global threats.

"There must be many secrets between the United States and North Korea that Japan does not know about," a Japanese government source said.

Among the data that the United States withholds is assessments of the outcome of North Korea's nuclear tests.

Furthermore, knowledgeable sources said, the United States has often misunderstood North Korea and as a result has misled Japan and South Korea in assessing its nuclear capabilities.

Some intelligence about North Korea is available to any nation with suitable assets and analytical ability.

Although North Korea's thousands of underground facilities cannot be monitored directly, it is possible to study peripheral activities, such as deliveries of equipment, the site's security level and traffic between nuclear-related facilities.

The test site at Punggyeri, Hamgyong-namdo, has four tunnels that are either complete or are under construction, each dug horizontally into hillsides.

Japan, the United States and South Korea have estimated the depths of the tunnels by analyzing the amount of soil removed and the lengths of rails used in a light railway built to remove the soil.

But the United States wields far greater intelligence capabilities.

It operates a network of Keyhole spy satellites, whose cameras have three times the imaging resolution of those operated by Japan. It is also able to fly Global Hawk high-altitude reconnaissance drones above North Korea to monitor subtle developments inside the closed country.

And human intelligence plays a role, too. When North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, Japan, the United States and South Korea learned from spies that the test site was at Punggyeri.

The United States dispatches intelligence agents to North Korea posing as tourists, for example. The agents may hold multiple passports.

"That is something we could never copy," one Japanese intelligence source said.

"NOT ALLIES"

The United States has also led Japan and South Korea in the race to understand North Korea's true level of nuclear development.

Washington began monitoring a nuclear-related facility in Yongbyon soon after North Korea started construction there. It noted the size and design of rooms before a roof was built overhead and from that was able to predict the type of equipment technicians were planning to install, deducing the kind of reactor and the number of centrifuges, sources said.

In 2009, North Korea launched long-range ballistic missiles and conducted its second nuclear test.

The U.S. government gave Japan extensive details about the missiles, but offered limited information about the nuclear test, sources said. It stopped short of discussing the device's performance.

The information about the missiles included satellite images, details of preparations ahead of the launch, and assessments of how the rockets performed.

In September 2012, senior Japanese government officials visited the United States to explain the government's goal at halting all nuclear reactors by the 2030s following the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

U.S. officials repeatedly pressed them for details of how they planned to secure the plutonium generated in reprocessing spent fuel, material that is considered high risk because it could be used by terrorists to construct a basic bomb.

A Japanese government source said the Americans expressed doubt over whether Japan could be trusted to safeguard it.

Such experiences have led some in Tokyo to arrive at a painful assessment of the relationship.

"Japan and the United States are not allies when it comes to nuclear matters," said a Japanese government source who was responsible for North Korean nuclear affairs.

COLLECTIVE FAILURE

And yet, despite its strong intelligence assets worldwide, the United States fails to understand that North Korea will always put the survival of its regime above all else--even at the cost of economic growth and foreign relations.

Kim Hyun Sik, a former professor at the Pyongyang University of Education, who fled North Korea in 1992, said the reclusive state will never open up its economy.

Kim, who now lives outside Washington, said anyone indoctrinated with North Korean philosophy will understand this.

To illustrate why, he said he can still recite in their entirety the "10 basic principles" underpinning the system of thought of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea. That lengthy document, compiled in the 1970s, justifies rule as a dictatorship.

"North Koreans are clever," he added. "Their state will not collapse easily."

The United States has demonstrably failed to understand the North Korean way of thinking.

In 1994, the United States and North Korea concluded a framework agreement that called for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and included a provision to supply light water reactors to North Korea. The United States asked South Korea to shoulder part of the cost of two reactors.

One South Korean government source who was involved in the talks with the United States said Washington misunderstood Pyongyang's inner strength and tenacity.

The source said U.S. officials justified the payments by speaking of the fall of communist regimes in Eastern Europe. History, they said, shows that North Korea cannot survive another five years. Under this logic, they argued, the reactors would become eventually become South Korea's.

One South Korean government official said the United States tends to underestimate North Korea's capabilities. There have been instances when Tokyo and Seoul have been influenced by such mis-assessments.

After North Korea's second nuclear test, Japanese government officials tried to ascertain whether Pyongyang had succeeded in developing a small but powerful fusion-boosted fission bomb.

Some officials believed North Korea was probably able to develop one, but others argued the cash-strapped country would probably have a more unambitious goal: to obtain only a basic-model nuclear bomb.

On Feb. 11, North Korea informed the United States, China and Russia that it intended to carry out a nuclear test just as soon as preparations were complete.

The message was delivered to Clifford Hart, the U.S. special envoy to the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear development program, by North Korea's permanent mission to the United Nations.

That night, the United States relayed the information to Japan.

North Korea proceeded with the nuclear test the following day. The country said it used a "lighter, miniaturized" nuclear bomb with proportionally greater explosive force than previous devices.

The test underscored the collective failure of Japan, the United States and South Korea to prevent North Korea from making significant progress in its program.

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Please check a related article at (http://ajw.asahi.com/article/behind_news/politics/AJ201302150067).

By YOSHIHIRO MAKINO/ Correspondent
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