Intelligence on North Korea hard to read

Excerpt of opinion article by Mike Chinoy, a former CNN Senior Asia correspondent:

The latest controversy over whether North Korea has the technology to fit a nuclear warhead on a missile is not the first time American intelligence agencies have been at odds in assessing Pyongyang’s capabilities. And it is not the first time the Pentagon’s intelligence arm, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) has been out front in reaching the most alarmist conclusions about North Korea — one with which other U.S. agencies have disagreed.

The DIA assessment, disclosed by a Congressman at a hearing on April 11, was that the DIA has “moderate confidence” North Korea has developed a nuclear warhead that can be delivered by a ballistic missile. Within hours, however, James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, released a statement saying the DIA report did not represent the consensus of the intelligence community, and that “North Korea has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear armed missile,” — a view echoed by a Pentagon spokesman and the South Korean Defense Ministry.

Secretary of State John Kerry also noted that “it is inaccurate to suggest that the DPRK has fully tested, developed or demonstrated capabilities that are articulated in that report.”

The sharply different judgments about Pyongyang’s capabilities recall a similar episode in 1998, when a fierce debate erupted within the American intelligence community after U. S. spy satellites discovered an underground complex at Kumchangri, not far from North Korea’s main nuclear facility at Yongbyon. On August 17, 1998, the New York Times published a story that revealed the intelligence findings, turning what had been an internal intelligence debate into a public firestorm of controversy — just as the congressman’s revelations did on Thursday.

The Times report, with headline “North Korea Site An A-Bomb Plant, US Agencies Say” created major problems. In Washington, the Clinton administration came under attack for Pyongyang’s alleged violations of the Agreed Framework. And, unless the issue was handled with great skill, the tenuous link between the U.S. and North Korea that has existed since the 1994 deal would collapse.

In the spring of 1999, Chuck Kartman, Washington’s Special Envoy for Peace Talks with North Korea — nicknamed “Iron Butt” for his ability to sit patiently and listen to North Korean envoys spew out venom, bombast and threats across the negotiating table — engaged in protracted talks with his North Korean counterparts.

In May, Kartman convinced the North to agree to permit U.S. inspectors to visit Kumchangri. In addition, after initially demanding a payment of $300 million dollars for a one-time visit, North Korea eventually accepted a shipment of 100,000 tons of potatoes as the “price” of permitting the inspection.

Accompanied by a team of experts, Kartman flew to Pyongyang and the North Koreans took them to Kumchangri. To the Americans’ surprise and embarrassment, they found a large, empty underground cave. There was no evidence of a secret nuclear site.

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