While Moscow, Beijing and Tehran may be seething troubles for the Biden Administration, the real and much bigger headache for the U.S. lies in Pyongyang — a country that remains a blind spot for American and allied intelligence agencies. The lack of hard intelligence from inside North Korea is making it increasingly difficult for the U.S. and its allies to determine what Kim Jong-un’s so-called “Hermit Kingdom” is cooking up.
As a strident Pyongyang continues to taunt the U.S. and allies with a barrage of ballistic missile tests, the best response Washington has to offer is to send Western condemnations and an aircraft carrier to carry out military preparedness drills with South Korea and Japan.
The problem with North Korea is that it remains a Hermit Kingdom. Countries like Russia, China and Iran that demonstrate hostilities toward the U.S. are integrated into the global system, which makes it easier for intelligence operatives from the U.S. and allies to gather information. However, that’s not the case with Pyongyang.
Intelligence agencies gather information on foreign nations and terror outfits using a variety of inputs and tools ranging from — human operatives, electronic eavesdropping, cyber espionage and spy satellites.
However, in the case of North Korea, the lack of diplomatic or commercial relationships Pyongyang shares with the outside world and the restrictive use of technology and the internet make the country one of the most impenetrable intelligence targets.
Pointing to the difficulty of operating human agents for intelligence gathering in North Korea, a report in Politico quoting Bruce Klingner, of the Heritage Foundation with 20 years of experience with the CIA and DIA says it’s a country where “strangers stand out.”
In a country “where people will report on their families and neighbors, certainly, any stranger will get reported,” the report quoted Klingner as saying.
According to the report, agencies find that even human intelligence, that comes from within North Korea, — from defectors — are more often than not, individuals who lack direct knowledge of the regime’s most sensitive inner workings.
In that sense, North Korea’s so-called status as the Hermit Kingdom may only be part of the intelligence gathering problem. A bigger problem that makes intelligence gathering much harder is that much of what Pyongyang decides or does is driven by its dictator-leader Kim Jong-un himself.
When it comes to North Korea, Klingner points out in the Politico report, that satellite images have been the most useful intelligence-gathering tool, even though they provide an incomplete picture.
Although satellite images help in tracking military movements or analyzing activity or test preparations, surveillance images are difficult to corroborate because North Korea’s military and storage facilities are mostly located underground due to a variety of security and geographic reasons, which makes it difficult to gather multiple images of a facility from different vantage points.
Meanwhile, as Western intelligence continues to dither in the dark, North Korea continues to develop and refine its missile systems technology, inch-by-inch working its way toward the goal of building a viable nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.
In 2017, the Washington Post reported on a confidential intelligence assessment that said North Korea had crossed a key threshold on the path to becoming a full-fledged nuclear power by successfully producing a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles.
The U.S. estimate then was that the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had 60 nuclear weapons at his disposal. However, each year, the country is producing enough fissile material for 12 additional weapons, which by now would be enough for more than one hundred nuclear weapons.
A RAND Corporation report released in April 2021, titled: Countering the Risks of North Korean Nuclear Weapons, projected that by 2027 North Korea could have 200 nuclear weapons along with several dozen intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and hundreds of theater missiles for delivering the nuclear weapons.
Reports indicate that the country may now be all set to conduct its 7th nuclear test. The last time Pyongyang tested a nuclear bomb was in 2017, when the explosion at its Punggye-ri test site generated a blast yield of between 100-370 kilotons. For context, a 100-kiloton bomb is six times more powerful than the one the US dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
North Korea recently passed a law enshrining the right to use preemptive nuclear strikes to protect itself. Under the law, passed by the country’s rubber-stamp parliament, North Korea has said it’ll carry out a preventive nuclear strike “automatically” and “immediately to destroy hostile forces,” when a foreign country poses an imminent threat to the country and its dictator Kim Jong-un.
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