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North Korea is a black hole for U.S. intelligence

The propaganda village of Gijungdong, seen from a South Korean observation tower near the DMZ. Photo: Jung Yeon-Je / AFP / Getty Images

The U.S. has “no ability” to build sources in North Korea and very limited opportunities to gather intelligence in North Korea, a former government official with experience negotiating with North Korea tells Axios. That leaves the U.S. in the dark on aspects of North Korea’s nuclear and missile development.

Why it matters: Trump is preparing to meet with North Korea's Kim Jong-un to discuss denuclearization, something Pyongyang has discussed in the past but never delivered. "Since we have no embassy there, we have no diplomatic relations with them, no real commercial interchange with them," there is little concrete information to offer policymakers, the former official said.

Bottom line: That leaves the U.S. flying essentially blind, with little more to go on than the fact that there hasn't been a nuclear or missile test since Seoul's announcement.

Why it’s so hard to gather intelligence on North Korea:

  • Imagery is hampered because North Korea puts so many of its military targets underground and undercover. The mountainous terrain in North Korea also prevents good imagery development, especially as the regime keeps more and more of its military targets in tunnels.
  • “Signals intelligence is constrained in North Korea through encryption and landlines,” Bruce Klingner, former CIA division chief for the Koreas, told Axios. Indeed, most of North Korea is not connected to the Internet and even hacking from afar is difficult.
  • Human intelligence operations are difficult to run in North Korea because many Americans “don’t blend” and stand out due to how they look or how they speak due to North Korea's varying dialects, Klingner said.
    • "The populace is suspicious of people they don’t know" and reports the activity of neighbors, family members, and foreigners to the government, Klingner said.
    • “When you’re out away from Pyongyang you can be sure that you’re being watched,” the former official said. “And if you’re not being watched by one of their security agencies, the local population will be watching you.”

Other opportunities for gathering information:

  1. Other countries: The U.S. has intelligence-sharing agreements with Japan and South Korea, the most likely among our partnerships to have impactful intel about North Korea. According to the former official, however, that still leaves the U.S. with imperfect information because “all nations, regardless of how close they are allied, have secrets they don’t want to share."
  2. NGOs: “The only Americans who have any chance of getting in to North Korea and seeing it are…those who are part of NGOs,” the former official said. But “NGOs are very reticent about sharing information…because they know...they will lose their status to perform as an NGO, and…most of what they do is humanitarian in nature.”
  3. The State Department: Reports come "all the time" from foreign services officers and "may have intelligence significance, but it may not. More often not," the former official said.
  4. Gaining intel from the talks themselves: "If we can continue with these summits and these meetings by both the U.S. and the South Koreans, that alone is going to offer us a bonanza of information," the former official said. How North Korea responds to sensitive conversations will likely reveal a great deal of information.

One remedy: Site verification.

  • If concrete steps are laid out on denuclearization in the talks, the Trump administration will want assurances that North Korea isn’t duping them. However, demands for site verification have led to the breakdown of previous negotiations.
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