Why did nobody know where Kim Jong Un was last week?
When it comes to spy vs spy, North Korea often wins.
By Nate Thayer
October 14, 2014
The top world story of the boy dictator missing from public view for 40 days captured world headlines. North Korean supremo Kim Jong Un was dead; he was overthrown; his baby sister had seized power; he overdosed on Swiss cheese; he broke his ankles because he was too fat; he was suffering from gout; the North Korean capital was under lockdown; powerful generals had schemed a silent coup; Kim was now just a ‘puppet leader’. And so on.
The problem is that none of it was true. Kim Jong Un, it turns out, just has a bum leg.
Kim Jong Un reappeared in North Korean state media October 13, accompanied with pictures, and the all-powerful Ministry of Propaganda and Agitation calmly reconfirmed to the world that Kim was still “first secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, first chairman of the National Defence Commission of the DPRK and supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army.”
But more alarmingly than the well-known bumbling of the international free press is that the world’s great powers and their intelligence agencies are nearly as clueless.
North Korea has long confounded the spy agencies of its long list of adversaries by preventing human intelligence assets from penetrating the inner circle of the ruling elite in the world’s most secretive state.
When it comes to spy vs spy, North Korea often wins.
In a leaked 2013 document, “Congressional Budget Justification for the National Intelligence Program”, prepared by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, North Korea was identified as the most difficult country in the world to monitor.
“It is the hardest of a hard-target country…and that’s because of human intelligence–where we run human access–it’s impossible to run it. We can’t send Americans into North Korea to run around. North Koreans themselves cannot travel freely internally, so how can you send outsiders into North Korea?” Sue Mi Terry, a senior CIA North Korean analyst from 2001 through 2008, told PBS Frontline in 2013.
Human intelligence–or HUMINT–is the traditional tradecraft of human spies, where clandestine operatives are infiltrated or recruited to go where they are not supposed to be, collect information they are not supposed to know, and report back to people they are not supposed to work for. Sometimes they are foreign nationals, using false covers as diplomats or private citizens, but often they are recruits from within the government of a nation’s adversaries.
The job of the international media is not that different from that of spies. While the methodology is similar, there are different clients. And the spies have much bigger budgets and fancier toys.
Outside of the small circle of elite leadership in Pyongyang, access to information on the ruling Kim family is meticulously hidden. North Korea is a Potemkin village of halls and mirrors, with every word, picture, and event precisely choreographed to project a message predetermined by the small circle of elite policy makers in Pyongyang.
The truth is that the ruling Kim family public appearances, coordinated like poetry for decades by the powerful Ministry of Propaganda and Agitation, are one of the very few gauge’s with which the world knows what is going on in the top leadership the government of North Korea.
That doesn’t mean that Pyongyang’s adversaries don’t use every trick in the book to keep track of what is happening in North Korea. The U.S. uses satellites, radar, spy planes, interception of phone and computer communication and every other high-tech toy imaginable.
North Korea has a top priority, front row seat alongside with Osama Bin Laden, the nuclear development program in Iran, and the rise of Islamic extremism in the Middle East when it comes to resources devoted by foreign intelligence organizations.
The tendency of the foreign spies to employ their technological capacity often results in intelligence operations lacking something–HUMINT. The lack of HUMINT in intelligence operations leaves analysts staring at pictures, frantically searching through communications, reading newspapers, and talking to each other to try to figure out what is going on.
Not unlike the practitioners of the world’s free press.
This type of intelligence is called open source intelligence (OSINT), which comes essentially from reading newspapers, browsing the internet, and talking to people.
But in North Korea’s very unique case, it means mostly listening, watching, and reading official state propaganda.
Sometimes it devolves into just making stuff up out of thin air–as was the case with the recent media reporting on North Korea regarding the whereabouts and state of political and physical health of Kim Jong Un.
But the intelligence gaps of governments are not just relegated to the voyeurism of Kim’s health, but rather to more formidable issues including whether Pyongyang possess’ a working, viable nuclear arsenal, with which they have, not unremarkable, routinely threatened to use against their enemies, including the United States.
In 2013, there was a minor uproar within the U.S. intelligence community when the Defence Intelligence Agency mistakenly released classified assessments of Pyongyang’s nuclear capability. The DIA concluded that it had “moderate confidence” that North Korea had managed to succeed in adapting a nuclear warhead to arm a missile delivery system, therefore giving them the ability to not just produce nuclear bombs, but launch them against its enemies. The DIA secret assessment that Pyongyang now can launch a nuclear bomb against those they don’t like prompted William Clapper, the Director of the National Intelligence, who oversees the 17 U.S. spy agencies, to release a highly unusual public denial later the same day saying that conclusion was not “the consensus” of the U.S. intelligence community.
“There is so little direct evidence that I don’t think it’s possible to come to a firm conclusion on whether or not they currently have a nuclear warhead that can be delivered by missile, or how far away they are from getting there,” the New York Times quoted Gary Samore, President Obama’s coordinator for weapons of mass destruction, saying in 2013.
In other words, Washington really has no idea not only about whether Kim Jong Un has an injured foot, but whether he can launch a nuclear bomb.
“The coverage is very extensive using national technical means: imagery, intercepts and other means,” a CIA official told John Feifer of Foreign Policy in Focus in 2012. “It’s hard to get in there, but we do have external capabilities. Looking, listening and watching are all in play.”
But what Pyongyang’s adversaries don’t have is a network of actual human spies inside the core halls of power surrounding the Kim family dictatorship, now in power for nearly 70 years. “We don’t have physical access, minimal, if at all,” the official said. “Who is whispering in Kim Jung Un’s ear?”
Kim Jong Un or his powerful royal family taking extended breaks away from the propaganda cameras is nothing new.
Early on the morning of 19 December, 2011, 24 million North Koreans were informed a ‘major announcement’ would take place at noon. At mid day, Korean Central Television news anchor Ri Chun-hee, dressed in black mourning clothing, went on state media and said that Kim Jong Il had died of “severe myocardial infarction along with a heart attack” at 08:30 local time on Saturday December 17–51 hours before.
Despite both South Korea and the United States being technically at war with Pyongyang, and devoting every possible means of espionage trade-craft and multi-billion dollar toy to keep track of the idiosyncratic leader, it was the first time either Washington or Seoul had heard the news that the absolute dictator of their nemesis was no longer in charge.
When the death of the leader of the 4th largest standing army in the world armed with nuclear weapons was revealed to them, courtesy of North Korean state media, aides to South Korean president Lee Myung-bak were wearing colorful conical party hats and blowing paper kazoo noise makers in the midst of throwing the South Korean president a surprise birthday party.
Further, between the time North Korea said Kim had died while on a train conducting one of his infamous “on the spot field guidance” inspections on December 17, and the official North Korean media announcement 51 hours later on December 19th, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak had gotten on a plane and left the country, traveled to Tokyo, met with the Japanese prime minister and returned to South Korea–entirely unaware that the leader of the country he was at war with was dead.
Washington also acknowledged they had no inkling that Kim Jong Il had died. “We have seen the press reports and are following the situation closely,” said a White House spokesman. “We can not confirm the reports are true at this time.”
In fact, it is likely that Kim Jong Il died even earlier to when official media claimed, but the secret was kept tightly within a small circle of his elite officials.
Both South Korea’s National Intelligence Service and the CIA said Kim’s personal train, on which he is said to have died, had remained in the train station during the time North Korean authorities claimed he had died.
Whenever any of the Kim’s travel, they do so with a large team of medical staff, bodyguards, and other aides. Their official train has 20 cars, four of which make up a moving hospital. A separate security train goes first to ensure safety. If he had died while travelling by train, it would have been difficult to keep the event secret for more than two days.
Sophisticated spy technology, including satellites are laser focused on North Korea, making movements such as trains–and the personal train of the all-powerful leader particularly–without question carefully scrutinized and recorded by their adversaries.
NIS head Won Sei-hoon said satellite imagery showed Kim’s train was stationary in Pyongyang station when he was said to have died. “There were no signs the train ever moved,” Won said. Intelligence officials in Washington, who have absolute capability to monitor any above ground movements anywhere in North Korea, also confirmed that the train never left the station in Pyongyang during the period claimed by Pyongyang.
North Korea has evolved as the humour column of the international foreign pages. Why unmitigated gossip is allowed to transform into world headlines of the credible press may be the untold real story that deserves public scrutiny.
Even the normally respectable press seem to have been given a free pass to discard normal rules of corroboration to run stories which have absolutely no basis in fact. And the dirty little secret is that the fiction of these news stories is well-known to the reporters who sign their names to the articles, further undermined by their editors at home who are seeking maximum webpage clicks.
“Is Kim Jong Un’s Little Sister Kim Yo Jong Running North Korea?” headlined NBC News.
“Is a dangerous cheese addiction making Kim Jong-un seriously ill?” was the title of the New York Daily News story.
“Is North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ill, deposed or taking a break?” asked the Los Angeles Times.
“Has North Korea’s Kim Jong Un Been Toppled? blared the Daily Beast.
Notice that every story ends in a question mark. In other words the media outlet has, in truth, no idea what is going on, despite the best efforts of their correspondents.
But what is more alarming is neither do the intelligence agencies of the worlds most powerful governments.
The deployed spy capabilities of the U.S. and its allies include Signals intelligence (SIGINT); Communications intelligence (COMINT); Electronic intelligence (ELINT); telemetry intelligence (TELINT); Geospatial intelligence (GEOINT), also known as imagery intelligence (IMINT) which are “derived from images collected by electro-optical, infrared, and radar sensors using satellites, aircraft, and unmanned aerial vehicles; and Human Intelligence (HUMINT).
There are plans in place to react to a crisis in North Korea coordinating the militaries of several countries involving hundreds of thousands of troops.
Operations Plan 1527 coordinates U.S. and South Korean response to a military invasion by the North. Concept Plan 5029 addresses “less serious” scenarios, including regime collapse.
But there is the problem of communications interception.
For COMINT to work communication has to exist for it to be intercepted. North Korea is the only country in the world with no internet system available to its citizens. Internet access is allowed only for the elite and is scrupulously monitored by the all-powerful and all-knowing secret police. An internal intranet system is allowed for academic and government purposes but is not connected to the world-wide system.
Telephone land-lines are a rarity in North Korea, available only to ruling party elite, and are all meticulously monitored by the secret police. Land-lines, which are relatively easy for foreign spies to monitor because they operate on a physical cable system, are controlled by the ruling party and are routed through a central ruling party operator and controlled by the feared Ministry of People’s Security. One does not have private chats by telephone in North Korea. In addition, the lines are not allowed to receive or make direct calls abroad.
And cell phones were only introduced to North Korea in 2009–and they operate on dual systems. For North Korean citizens, they can only make or receive calls to other North Korean citizens and the ability to make or receive calls outside the country is blocked.
Another dual cell phone system is provided for the use of the tiny community of resident foreigners and ruling party elite–but these are unable to send or receive calls to North Korean citizens.
For any use of telephones in North Korea, it is assumed correctly that all calls are carefully monitored.
One primary method of communication with the outside world is to buy on the black market Chinese cell phones that operate on Chinese cell tower grids. North Koreans sneak within 3 kilometers of the Chinese border, make calls abroad, and then flee promptly, as the state security services have mobile cell phone detector vehicles that roam the border and can detect the location of the ‘ping’s. Being apprehended with an illicit cell phone means harsh penalties in the country, and include death.
These, and other restrictions on North Korean telephone and computer usage, make North Korea an extraordinarily difficult spy target for their adversaries.
And then there is Measurement and Signature Intelligence (MASINT) technology used by the U.S. and other powerful intelligence agencies.
The FBI defines MASINT as “a relatively little-known collection discipline that concerns weapons capabilities and industrial activities. MASINT includes the advanced processing and use of data gathered from overhead and airborne IMINT and SIGINT collection systems.” MASINT is particularly useful for weapons hidden from detection by camera or satellite and for underground facilities designed to avoid aerial detection “because it relies on measurements of emissions which denote a certain signature of activities,” according Mark M. Lowenthal, author of the 2012 book “Intelligence: From Secrets to Policy.”
That is important when trying to spy on North Korea, because, in many ways, North Korea is a subterranean government. Most of their secret stuff is hidden underground in approximately 15,000 underground facilities. In fact, nearly all of their military forces are underground. Their airplanes, missiles, tanks, military construction sites, and nuclear launch facilities are all housed underground to be safe from the prying eyes of their enemies.
North Korea is so sophisticated at underground tunnels and military facilities that it exports its expertise globally to other rogue nations and armed insurgents. North Korean engineers are known to have constructed and designed sophisticated tunnel systems for the Burmese government and built tunnel systems for Hezbollah that have penetrated the Syrian border into Lebanon.
The real reason why we saw those ridiculously speculative headlines that captures world attention on Kim Jong Un in recent days is the remarkable absence of human intelligence available in the world’s most closed, repressive, and secretive nation-state.
“We don’t have any decent agents. It’s simply too risky to communicate with them. And it’s not that North Korean counterintelligence is especially good, it’s that the society is so closed that information is strictly compartmentalized…to know what’s going on in North Korea you have to penetrate at high levels of government, and to know plans and intentions you need to be in Kim’s office,” a CIA official told author Keith Thompson in 2009.
“We monitor them in every possible way: satellites, infrared photography, U-2 planes are still used—the planes travel along south of the DMZ with side-looking cameras. At that level, the NSA probably can know when a tank starts up at a military base on a cold morning. But there have never been any serious, high-level defections from North Korea, even during the war. The Kim family and their close allies are very good at holding onto power by any means necessary,” said North Korean specialist Bruce Cummings, adding “we have next to no human intelligence in North Korea by which to judge their intentions.”
“The only way to have any North Korean human access is to convert them when they’re outside of North Korea. But their security practice is top-notch. There’s no single North Korean that can just run around by themselves.…They all travel in pairs–minimum pairs. They go to the grocery store, they go to take the subway in pairs. You cannot even separate them,” CIA North Korean analyst Sue Mi Terry told PBS Frontline last year. “The ones that go out abroad are the elites. They are the ones that are most ideologically trained, and they have family members back home, and you know the practice of sort of rounding up all the family members. Up to three generations get punished for your own acts, so it’s impossible almost to convert them. But let’s say you do convert them, and we have human access, but they’re midlevel officials. You’re a midlevel North Korean official working in Kuwait. What do you know about [what] Kim Jong-un is thinking? … So it’s really impossible to know the inner workings of the North Korean regime, what the top elites are thinking.”
It isn’t just North Korea’s foes that are stymied from accessing what is going on in the country; North Korean’s, equally, are illiterate in how the world works outside its borders.
Unlike, the Arab Spring and the rest of the world being interconnected by computers and technology, the digital revolution comes to an abrupt halt at the borders of North Korea. There is no Twitter, Facebook, Google, or internet to inform the 24 million population, little less allow them to communicate with one another to mobilize and sort of opposition movement. Any hint of disloyalty to the impenetrable stranglehold on power of the Kim family is squashed by the omnipotent security services. The punishment for even defecting is three generations of one’s family are rounded up and sentenced to political prison hard labour camps.
Even for those who might want to organize an opposition movement “They still know you will probably fail. Any kind of uprising will fail, and all your relatives, your kids, your grand-kids, will be sent up to a political prison camp,” said former CIA analyst Terry.
Neither South Korea, the U.S. or Japan have embassies in Pyongyang. The few embassies that are in Pyongyang have travel and communication under extraordinary restrictions. They are not allowed to interact with North Koreans and North Koreans face severe punishment for unauthorized interaction with foreigners of any sort–including diplomats, tourists, or visiting businessmen. All foreigners are accompanied by North Korean government “guides”.
“Even if you have converted someone and they’re there, how do they then get the information out?” asked a CIA analyst.
That is where the international press can be legitimately credited for groundbreaking and effective means of shedding light on the very dark reality of repression of freedom of expression and free flow of information in North Korea.
While the international press can be rightly made the butt of amusement for their sensational, incorrect, and uncorroborated reporting in recent days, it remains true that some of the best information that has reached the outside world has come from anonymous sources who comprise a loose network of extraordinarily courageous North Koreans who smuggle information out to sources outside the country to shed light on what is happening within the world’s most repressive country.
Nongovernmental organizations, often involving North Korean defectors and journalists in South Korea, China and Japan maintain contact with North Koreans through illegal mobile phones and tiny USB drives that are smuggled over the Chinese border and returned. These networks have been the source of many accurate reports as well, including the famine that killed more than a million in the 1990s, and the absurd 2009 currency reform campaign that resulted in the value of North Korean currency dropping 96 percent in a matter of weeks.
U.S. intelligence is currently putting high hopes on developing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) that are modeled after a hummingbird to tackle the effective denial of access to U.S. spies by North Korea.
These unmanned miniature model aircraft that can hover stationary while in flight and are as undetectable as an insect have given American spooks higher hopes of keeping track of the likes of KIm Jong Un as imagery (IMTEl) technology has advanced where cameras the size of a small bug’s eye can fit onto the insect size flying Hummingbird imitating drones. The electronic UAV are said to be able to have imaging, listening, measurement, and location capabilities.
If these new technologies are effectively developed and deployed, they might be the first technology to actually effectively replace the need for old-fashioned human spies, able to float outside a window while recording a conversation and videotaping whatever is going on as undetectable as a mosquito or fly.
Until then, the multi-billion dollar sophisticated international spy agencies–not to mention the international Free Press–likely will remain reduced to watching the official Korean Central New Agency and the remarkably skilled work of the Ministry of Agitation and Propaganda to know what is going on within the secured secret world of the world’s most secretive dictatorship.
“We know very little. It’s really sad, but when Kim Jong-un first became known, the agency CIA had this one picture of Kim Jong-il’s boy with that bratty grin, and that’s what we were working with. That’s the photo we had,” said former CIA analyst Terry.
Well that and the photographs provided by the North Korean propaganda apparatus.