North Korean deception, or too-rigid doctrine? Too early to know

North Korean deception, or too-rigid doctrine? Too early to know
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In September 1962, U.S. intelligence officers analyzing U-2 surveillance photo reconnaissance over Cuba noticed that Cuban surface-to-air missile sites were arranged just as they were in the Soviet Union to protect ICBM military bases. Soviet military advisers did not use camouflage in Cuba because no such camouflage was used in the Soviet domestic space. This decision did not reflect Soviet strategy, but rather the Soviet Ministry of Defense nuclear protocol.  

The U-2 spy flights, coupled with a treasure trove of secrets that the CIA obtained from Soviet military intelligence officer and spy Oleg Penkovsky on the Soviet nuclear arsenal, comprised the intelligence on which the Kennedy administration relied safely to navigate the Cuban Missile Crisis.


Intelligence analysts assess state and non-state actors using different paradigms. For example, the “rational actor” model assumes leadership will set and rank goals, consider options and consequences, and make the most rational tactical or strategic decision. “Leadership” analysts also focus on the significant roles of key individuals, who set a country’s national security course. How these leaders engage with one another, and which arguments carry the day, are key to understanding the decision-making.


Another model is based on accurately assessing the role of government institutions, which operate within their own set range of protocols and regulations. This is what explained the Soviet failure to camouflage nuclear sites in Cuba. Nikita Khrushchev surely would have preferred a strategy of concealment, but Soviet military doctrine was the determining factor. It also might be the model that best explains the recent upgrades at North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center.

Autocracies such as the Soviet Union and North Korea rely on rigid protocols and strict organizational structure. Photo reconnaissance has indicated construction of new buildings, a cooling water pump house, and a radiological-chemical laboratory at Yongbyon. President TrumpDonald TrumpProject Veritas surveilled government officials to expose anti-Trump sentiments: report Cheney: Fox News has 'a particular obligation' to refute election fraud claims The Memo: What now for anti-Trump Republicans? MORE likely will be asking the U.S. Intelligence Community when these upgrades were planned, and whether they are meant to enhance the safety of the center or develop a new line of operation. Now that we have established a basis for negotiations with North Korea, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoUS Olympic Committee urges Congress not to boycott Games in China Pompeo on CIA recruitment: We can't risk national security to appease 'liberal, woke agenda' DNC gathers opposition research on over 20 potential GOP presidential candidates MORE can raise this issue directly with his North Korean counterparts.

In some cases, but certainly not all, standard bureaucratic procedure can be a part of a significant threat to our national security, as was the case during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Based on my experience serving at the CIA, this latest satellite reconnaissance on Yongbyon most likely would be considered an important data point worthy of further collection, rather than a definitive indication of Kim Jong Un’s strategy.

Intelligence assessment can be like putting together a jigsaw puzzle — only you have to wade through a huge pile of pieces, some of which are not even part of the puzzle, and sometimes a few of the pieces you need are missing. We can expect the U.S. Intelligence Community to focus on augmenting the satellite reconnaissance with all source collection designed to produce as complete a picture as possible for the president and his team.

It was clear to those of us who witnessed firsthand the historic summit between President Trump and Kim this month, that Singapore is a prototype for one of the most economically vibrant regions on the planet, of which North Korea is a monstrous outlier. For the CIA, the intelligence challenge involves assigning a level of confidence to whether Kim Jong Un might be interested in using his pursuit of an ICBM and nuclear weapons capability to strike the U.S. homeland as bargaining chips in return for food, energy assistance, and integration in the Asian regional (and, potentially, world) economy.

Intelligence collection is multifaceted and focused on a troika of requirements, including North Korea’s negotiation strategy, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and a potential “loose nuke” scenario in the event Kim miscalculates the delicate balance between repression and economic reform, as did the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev, and loses his grip on North Korea’s extensive weapons arsenal.  

For now, we should avoid making any precipitous conclusions based on a single data point — in this case, satellite collection of Yongbyon — and instead closely track Secretary of State Pompeo’s deft leadership of the the post-summit “mistrust and verify” strategy, which will determine whether North Korea will stay true to its history of double-dealing.  

Daniel Hoffman is a former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA.