July 19, 2003

Pyongyang: Preempting a Preemptive Strike?

Pyongyang: Preempting a Preemptive Strike?

The latest intelligence emerging from NoKo. Key grafs:

"What concerns American, South Korean and Japanese analysts, however, is not simply the presence of the hard-to-detect gas but its source. While American satellites have been focused for years on North Korea's main nuclear plant, at Yongbyon, the computer analyses that track the gases as they are blown across the Korean Peninsula appeared to rule out the Yongbyon reprocessing plant as their origin. Instead, the analysis strongly suggests that the gas originated from a second, secret plant, perhaps buried in the mountains.

American officials have long suspected that North Korea would try to build a second plant to protect itself against a pre-emptive strike by the United States. The United States even demanded an inspection of one underground site five years ago, only to find it empty, but this is the first time evidence has emerged that a second plant may be in operation.

"This takes a very hard problem and makes it infinitely more complicated," said one Asian official who has been briefed on the American intelligence. "How can you verify that they have stopped a program like this if you don't know where everything is?"

Another aspect worth noting with regard to the NoKo story. On Iraq, the story goes, the CIA was being pressured by folks at Defense (and maybe the White House) to aggressively analyze intelligence related to that country's WMD capacity. On NoKo, on the other hand, there appears to be a reversal of sorts. The CIA appears increasingly concerned that NoKo is moving towards production of nukes. But the White House, for a while now, refuses to utter the "C" word, ie. that events on the Korean Peninsula may well constitute a crisis. People at Langley seem more worked up regarding NoKo developments than those at the White House.

If true, there could be several reasons for this. One is that a bit of policy paralysis has set in as between the Foggy Bottom types pushing negotiations and those at Defense looking at more punitive measures. And, by not treating the situation as a full-fledged crisis, the Adminstration avoids have to make any real decisions on which way to go.

Meanwhile Kim Jong II is, of course, looking at events in Iraq and calculating that the U.S. doesn't have the appetite for another significant military action at this juncture. And a more limited punitive strike could be of limited effectiveness if ancillary secret plants exist.

Put simply, I'm beginning to think he's not bluffing merely to corral the U.S. into negotiations. And that therefore the Admin really has to start figuring out where they are going on this issue. A hybrid approach? A multinational naval blockade to stem potential nuke smuggling while pursuing trilateral negotiations with the Chinese?

Another issue in all of this? Intelligence emanating from the CIA right now is going to be scrutinized with particular attention given the raging controversy on Iraq WMD intelligence. The bar will be higher to persuade people, for instance, that a second plant in NoKo were potentially detected going forward. Still, Sanger's article goes too far here:

"American intelligence officials say they are wary about making any final judgments about the new evidence. They are keenly aware that C.I.A. assessments of Iraq's nuclear program have touched off a national debate over whether intelligence was exaggerated, and have made all the agency's findings suspect." [my emphasis]

All CIA findings are suspect right now? That's a breathtakingly broad statement.

Posted by Gregory at July 19, 2003 10:16 PM
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