A lack of hard intelligence inside North Korea is curtailing the United States’ ability to determine Kim Jong Un’s intentions as the hermit kingdom fires a barrage of powerful missile launches, according to senior administration officials.
The recent tests have caused administration officials to grow concerned that Kim is set to oversee his nation’s seventh nuclear test.
So far, President Joe Biden has responded to the historic level of provocation by sending a US aircraft carrier to the region. The US and South Korea performed live-fire missile tests of their own and, in an urgently arranged telephone call with Japan’s prime minister, Biden vowed to coordinate on a “longer-term response” to the increasingly belligerent North.
White House officials have declined to detail any analysis or assessment that sheds light on why there has been a rapid increase in escalatory action, citing an inability to talk publicly about classified intelligence. But two senior US officials familiar with the matter acknowledged a central issue in divining the dictator’s motives is a lack of hard intelligence altogether.
“We have quite a good picture on the state of North Korean conventional and missile capabilities. What’s much harder is the intentions component, where, of course, collection is a bigger problem,” said Chris Johnstone, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former director for East Asia on the National Security Council under Biden.
“Since so much of what North Korea does is driven by the leader himself, you really have to get inside his head, and that’s a hard intelligence problem.”
North Korea has long been isolated and largely shuttered from the rest of the world, a reality that has become even more acute in recent years due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The North lacks the widespread use of technology that not only facilitates economic and societal advances, but also provides critical windows and opportunities to glean information for the intelligence services of the US and its allies.
That leaves the White House without the type of information that could help predict when precisely a test may occur or allow for greater insights into Kim’s thinking as Biden works to calibrate an approach that avoids escalation.
“It’s difficult to know what is inside his mind and how he makes his decisions,” John Kirby, the strategic communications coordinator for the National Security Council, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. “Our ability to divine intelligence out of Pyongyang is fairly limited. So, it’s hard to know what’s prompting this. But what we do know is he’s continuing to try and improve his program, his capabilities.”
The intelligence community “knows a fair bit about his inner circle, a fair bit about how decisions are made,” Johnstone said. “But at the end of the day, it really is him. And when the circle is so small – and they don’t leave the country – it’s a pretty hard target.”
The latest missile launches mark the 24th time that North Korea has conducted missile tests this year, the highest annual tally since Kim took power in 2011.
Sanctions applied by the past three administration have done little to stop Kim’s march toward a viable nuclear weapon, even as they have left the country deeply isolated and many of its people impoverished. Diplomacy has similarly failed to yield much progress in halting a weapons program that North Korea says it will never abandon.
The Biden administration’s attempts to directly engage Pyongyang – delivered through a variety of channels, both direct and indirect – have been met with silence, according to officials. While the White House is confident its messages seeking diplomacy without preconditions “anytime, anyplace” have been received by Kim, he has yet to respond.
“We remain prepared to engage in serious and sustained diplomacy,” a US official said. “It is unfortunate that the DPRK has not responded to our outreach.”
Bracing for another nuclear test
Another underground nuclear test – potentially timed near November’s midterm elections – would amount to an attention-grabbing move that US officials have been bracing for over the past several months, beginning in the Spring when intelligence showed new activity at one of the country’s nuclear sites around the time of Biden’s first presidential visit to Asia.
White House aides said they were prepared to respond, including through adjustments to the US military posture in the region and the deployment of strategic assets. Yet the test didn’t come during Biden’s trip, underscoring the limits of US intelligence in predicting exactly when or why North Korea may test its advanced weapons.
“Anytime people start speculating on what North Korea might or might not do, they tend to have their expectations confounded one way or another,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said at the time.
US officials and outside analysts anticipate the US isn’t likely to get much warning of a nuclear test. US military and intelligence agencies assess North Korea could be ready to resume underground nuclear testing at any moment, largely based on satellite imagery showing above-ground preparations at its Punggye-ri test site appear to be complete.
The country’s rainy season is now over, opening up the roads to the site. What’s not clear is whether North Korea has placed nuclear material in any of the underground tunnels at the site.
“The country is dried out the test site looks really well rebuilt to my eye. It’s really at this point probably a political choice for them,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a weapons expert and professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. “I think when they are technically ready and politically ready, we’ve got all the warning we’re gonna get.”
Tests help Kim refine his weapons
Officials believe the missile and nuclear tests serve a practical purpose, beyond simply sending a message to the US and its allies in the region, which allow the North to further refine its systems as it works toward the ultimate goal of a nuclear-tipped missile that can reach the US mainland. Testing ever-more-powerful weapons also enhances Kim’s stature inside North Korea.
“What concerns us is whatever happens in these launches – how far they go and whether they succeed or fail – he learns. And he is able to improve his ballistic missile capabilities with every subsequent launch. So that’s of concern to us,” Kirby said.
Lewis cautioned against reading too much into individual ballistic missile tests. The primary motivation for North Korea, he said, is technical development – “especially the short-range ones where I think they’re no longer testing the missiles, they’re testing the crews.”
Other analysts believe the spate of missile tests is better understood as a response to Kim’s domestic woes.
“North Korea has had a very difficult period during Covid, essentially shutting off the country entirely, including to China. The food situation isn’t great,” Johnstone said. “The external enemy is part of what he uses to sustain his position.”
Still, determining precisely why North Korea is testing missiles at any particular moment has proved an enduring challenge for US administrations stretching back decades. For Biden and his top national security aides, deciphering North Korea’s intentions as it accelerates its weapons testing has proved difficult and administration officials are candid that previous efforts to assign motivation to Pyongyang’s actions have later been proved wrong.
“The North Koreans almost always have reasons for what they do. And our track record of understanding those ahead of time is not always so great,” one US official familiar with North Korea policy said.
A new strategy
Biden and his team have scoffed at the prospect of staging a high-profile meeting with Kim akin to the three summits former President Donald Trump convened with the dictator. Instead, they have said a meeting between the two leaders would come only after extensive preparatory diplomacy between officials on both sides and with an express purpose.
At the same time, Biden also rejected the “strategic patience” approach adopted by his onetime boss, former President Barack Obama, seeking instead a phased approach in which North Korea gives up parts of its program in exchange for sanctions relief.
Biden administration officials quietly acknowledge that their North Korea policy is not expected to trigger progress on the intractable nuclear challenge, administration sources said. But they also entered office expecting North Korea was not going to engage diplomatically quickly due to a tumultuous few years of back and forth with the US under Trump and the effect of Covid.
Some officials are now beginning to consider how the Biden administration could approach the distinct foreign policy challenge in the second half of Biden’s term, sources said, though neither the President nor his senior-most aides have indicated a desire to make the issue a top priority.
“Our position on diplomacy and dialogue has not changed,” said State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel when asked if the Biden administration would consider re-evaluating their North Korea policy given the recent missile tests.
If there is one silver lining to Pyongyang’s recent provocations and the threat of a possible nuclear test, Johnstone said, it is that the common threat has helped the United States more smoothly navigate the historically contentious relationship between Japan and South Korea. And it could accelerate a debate in Japan about doubling its defense spending to 2% of its GDP, he said.
Asked what policy levers the Biden administration has at its disposal to try to curtail Pyongyang’s nuclear program, Lewis was succinct: “None.”
“When North Korea did not have nuclear weapons, there were interesting choices to be made about how to entice and or pressure them to not build some,” Lewis said. “Convincing North Korea to give up nuclear weapons that it already has is a totally different game.”
China’s uncertain role
As the US has moved in what one official called “a clear and calibrated” way with its critical allies in the region over the course of the last several days, one central player remains largely unseen: China.
With US-China tensions reaching new heights over the last several months, substantive communications between key US officials and their Chinese counterparts have remained largely on ice, according to several senior US officials. Any Chinese absence as US officials grapple with Kim’s motives creates a particularly acute challenge given the country’s role as a central interlocutor between the US and its allies and North Korea.
Sullivan directly addressed the issue during a four-and-a-half hour meeting with China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi in June, officials said. He pointed to North Korea as a primary area where the countries could cooperate, even amid the strained relations.
Sullivan “made very clear that we believe this is an area where the United States and China should be able to work together,” a senior administration official said.
But just this week China demonstrated a lack of desire to work with the US on curbing North Korea’s provocations. China’s representative at the UN cast the recent missile launches as a result of US aggressions in the region during a UN Security Council meeting.
White House officials believe the timing of a seventh nuclear test could also be dictated by political machinations inside China. Multiple officials noted they were closely watching the period immediately after the conclusion of the Communist Party’s congress later this month.
One official noted it was unlikely Kim would seek create a significant geopolitical crisis moment as Chinese President Xi Jinping moves toward his third term.
CNN’s Kaitlan Collins contributed to this report.