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  • Author: Torrey Froscher
  • Publication Date: 02-2020
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Nonproliferation Policy Education Center
  • Abstract: 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.
  • Topic: Diplomacy, Intelligence, Nuclear Weapons, History
  • Political Geography: Asia, North Korea, United States of America