Now that the President’s nuclear disarmament talks with Pyongyang are on the back burner, it’s worth reviewing how well Washington has generally faired in gauging the North Korean nuclear threat. Attached is such an excellent start covering the period from 1984 through 2002 by Torrey Froscher, a former senior Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) nuclear analyst and NPEC advisory board member.
Showcased in the CIA’s latest issue of Studies in Intelligence, “North Korea’s Nuclear Program: The Early Days, 1984-2002,” details how U.S. intelligence analysts and policy makers initially underestimated the North Korean nuclear threat and then placed far too much faith in North Korea’s commitment to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. To avoid such excesses in the future, Mr. Froscher recommends that intelligence analysts and policy makers spend, “less time reporting current developments” and devote “more effort to thinking through possible future developments, how they might materialize, and what factors would affect their likelihood.”
Developing such alternative nuclear futures was one of the key recommendations of NPEC’s Speaking Truth to Nonproliferation Project, which was spotlighted in a Studies in Intelligence cover story that was published in March of 2019. Mr. Froscher was an active participant in this project and has lectured at several universities as part of NPEC’s academic policy practitioner outreach program. His Studies in Intelligence article was developed from the NPEC lectures he gave over the last two years.
His analysis is spot-on as the United States and like-minded nations work to prevent other nations from withdrawing from or violating the NPT.
The North Korean nuclear program has been a major intelligence and policy challenge for more than 30 years. Former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry described the problem as “perhaps the most unsuccessful exercise of diplomacy in our country’s history.”1 Donald Gregg, who was CIA station chief in Seoul as well as US ambassador to South Korea, called North Korea the “longest running intelligence failure in the history of American espionage.”2
To be fair, Gregg was referring specifically to a lack of success in recruiting human sources—not necessarily errors in specific or overall assessments. Nonetheless, his comment underscores the difficulty of figuring out what North Korea is up to. In 2005, the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), which was convened to investigate the failed 2002 national intelligence estimate on Iraqi WMD capabilities, indicated that we know “disturbingly little about the weapons programs and even less about the intentions of many of our most dangerous adversaries,”3 presumably including North Korea.
Today we know a lot more about North Korea’s nuclear program— but mostly it is what they want us to know. Pyongyang has conducted six nuclear tests. We know that North Korea has nuclear weapons, a significant fissile material production capacity, and an ambitious nuclear and missile development effort. These programs are completely unconstrained. The United States has tried many approaches to deal with the problem over the years, and intelligence has played a key role in support.
Are there lessons to be learned from this experience? Obviously, it’s a very big question and I will sketch out just a few thoughts, mostly from an intelligence perspective: What we knew and when and how we thought about the problem. North Korea was one of many issues I worked on as an analyst and manager in CIA until my retirement in 2006. The views that follow are my own, of course, and the specific information is drawn from the extensive public literature on the issue, as well as declassified intelligence documents.
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