NY Times: Kim Jong-Il’s death shows intelligence failure

Western intelligence agencies have failed to secure any consistent flow of information from North Korea, the New York Times said today. It took 48 hours for outside nations to get word of Kim Jong-Il’s death. Their source? North Korean state media.

For South Korean and American intelligence services to have failed to pick up any clues to this momentous development — panicked phone calls between government officials, say, or soldiers massing around Mr. Kim’s train — attests to the secretive nature of North Korea, a country not only at odds with most of the world but also sealed off from it in a way that defies spies or satellites.

North Korea, arguably the greatest threat to national security in Asia, is an enigma to even the highest levels of U.S. intelligence. Sattelite imagery is easy to beat: put up a roof. Without assets inside the county and inside the highest levels of government, there can be no advanced knowledge of anything unfolding in North Korea, where a new leader is still largely unknown to outside nations.

“We have clear plans about what to do if North Korea attacks, but not if the North Korean regime unravels,” said Michael J. Green, a former Asia adviser in the Bush administration. “Every time you do these scenarios, one of the first objectives is trying to find out what’s going on inside North Korea.”

In many countries, that would involve intercepting phone calls between government officials or peering down from spy satellites. And indeed, American spy planes and satellites scan the country. Highly sensitive antennas along the border between South and North Korea pick up electronic signals. South Korean intelligence officials interview thousands of North Koreans who defect to the South each year.

And yet remarkably little is known about the inner workings of the North Korean government. Pyongyang, officials said, keeps sensitive information limited to a small circle of officials, who do not talk.

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