Just as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was about to leave for denuclearization negotiations in Pyongyang, a spate of media stories reported that North Korea is deceiving the Trump administration by seeking to hide some of its nuclear facilities.
Those stories suggest an effort by some Trump administration officials, led by National Security Adviser John Bolton, to derail the US-North Korea negotiations by pressuring Trump and Pompeo to embrace the narrative that Kim Jong Un is deceiving the US. Before becoming national security adviser, Bolton had made no secret of his opposition to any Trump effort to reach an agreement with North Korea.
On July 1, The New York Times reported a conflict between Bolton and Pompeo over the timetable for denuclearization. The story said Bolton was determined to limit the period during which North Korea would be required to substantially disarm to one year, while Pompeo had publicly suggested it could take the remainder of Trump’s first term.
That same day on “Face the Nation,” Bolton said Pompeo would be “discussing” with North Koreans “how to dismantle all of their [weapons of mass destruction] and ballistic missile programs in a year.” But Bolton made it clear that it would be based on a “full disclosure” by North Korea of all its activities and facilities.
Over the weekend, Pompeo presented a US demand to North Korean senior official Kim Yong Chol: A declaration by North Korea of all its nuclear- and missile-related activities before any other steps in the timetable for a denuclearization agreement.
In the 48 hours before Bolton’s “Face the Nation” appearance, however, both NBC News and The Washington Post reported that anonymous officials were touting an intelligence assessment as evidence of North Korean intention to deceive the administration by maintaining one or more covert enrichment facilities.
The timing of the two stories, appearing within hours on June 29 and 30, suggests that the decision to leak the intelligence assessment to the two news outlets was part of an effort to create pressure on Trump to integrate the narrative of deception by Kim Jong Un into his negotiating policy.
The NBC News story set the stage for such a narrative when it reported on June 29 that, “U.S. intelligence agencies believe that North Korea has increased its production of fuel for nuclear weapons at multiple secret sites in recent months — and that Kim Jong Un may try to hide those facilities as he seeks more concessions in nuclear talks with the Trump administration, U.S. officials told NBC News.”
The story quoted “one U.S. official briefed on the latest intelligence” as saying, “There is absolutely unequivocal evidence that they are trying to deceive the U.S.” NBC reporters cited “four other officials familiar with the intelligence assessment” as saying the assessment “concludes that there is more than one secret site” for enrichment.
The Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima and Joby Warrick reported on June 30 that the intelligence assessment in question had come from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). The assessment had concluded, as summarized by the Post, that “North Korean officials are exploring ways to deceive Washington about the number of warheads and missiles, and the types and numbers of facilities they have, believing that the United States is not aware of the full range of their activities.”
The DIA is known within intelligence circles for often taking hardline stances when it comes to assessing issues bearing on the interests of the US military. A former senior intelligence official with extensive experience dealing with DIA assessments told Truthout that the DIA “would tend to put a worse-case spin” on any analysis of North Korean intentions regarding information on its facilities “because of its military orientation.”
The Washington Post reporters seemed content to rely on the interpretation provided by four officials — presumably the same four from which NBC had gotten its picture of the report. But the Post story went even further than NBC, reporting that North Korea has “operated a secret underground uranium enrichment site known as Kangsong.” The Post had already reported the alleged secret nuclear site in May 2018, based on a report by David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security and the assurances of three officials.
But the information in Albright’s May 25 report does not support the sensational claim of an unacknowledged enrichment site called “Kangsong.” It shows that the allegation came several years ago from a North Korean defector who had said he “worked near the site,” clearly implying that he had never been inside it and could only infer its purpose.
Citing another major problem with the evidence, Albright wrote, “[S]ome aspects of the building are not consistent with a centrifuge plant.” Senior officials in at least one government don’t buy the idea that the facility is a centrifuge plant, according to Albright.
Albright explained that the key argument for the claim that the site is a covert enrichment facility is that there was no reason for North Korea to have waited until 2009 to begin work on the Yongbyon facility. But the North Korean regime had a compelling policy reason for waiting until 2009 to begin construction on the facility. From 2005 through 2008, North Korea was still hoping that the George W. Bush administration would negotiate and then carry out an agreement under which economic and political relations between the two governments would be normalized. Construction on the Yongbyon facility began only after the Bush administration had refused in late 2008 to go back to the original October 2007 agreement.
Albright noted in his report that other alleged covert enrichment facilities had been suggested to his organization, but that he viewed them as even “less credible than the information about Kangsong.”
Joel Wit is the founder of 38 North and was deeply involved in the negotiation and implementation of the Agreed Framework accord with North Korea from 1993 through 2000. In a telephone briefing for reporters on July 9, Wit said of the leak of “deception” report, “It is not unreasonable to suspect that it could be a deliberate leak to upset the apple cart.”
Bolton is known to be a master of bureaucratic political tactics to advance his policy agenda, and waged a highly successful campaign to kill the Agreed Framework negotiated with North Korea by the Clinton administration in 1994. And a key to Bolton’s success in such maneuvering was his cultivation of elements of the intelligence community. Bolton established personal relations with not only the senior officials of the various intelligence agencies, but also with some individual analysts. In mid-2002, he got hold of an assessment on North Korea’s shopping for large-scale centrifuge-related materials, which he used to pursue his attack on the Agreed Framework. Bolton later called it “the hammer I had been looking for to shatter the Agreed Framework.”
In mid-2004, his office leaked satellite images of sites at Iran’s Parchin military testing facility to ABC News with the suggestion that they showed that Iran had sites for nuclear weapons-related tests, generating a story about suspicious Iranian testing sites.
Bolton appears to be repeating that modus operandi since he entered the White House in April. Within weeks, someone leaked to Albright the latest intelligence assessment on the alleged secret enrichment facility, which in turn generated The Washington Post story in May. Just over a month later came the leak of the DIA assessment alleging a North Korean plan to deceive the United States.
The strategy of demanding that North Korea admit to secret nuclear sites, and when it refuses, demanding that negotiations be terminated, may appear to those with short memories as offering a good chance of political success. But this is not the first time US intelligence has become convinced that North Korea was maintaining a covert nuclear site, nor the first time that the US made a major issue of such a claim. It backfired on the Clinton administration when North Korea agreed to US inspections of one site in 1999 and 2000, for instance.
In mid-1998, satellite photographs and other intelligence led the Clinton administration to tell congressional leaders and the South Korean government privately that they were convinced that a site with tunnels carved into a mountain at Kumchang-ri was intended to house a new reactor and plutonium reprocessing center. But Pyongyang agreed to an inspection of the site — not once, but twice. The US inspections in June 1999 and again in May 2000 concluded that the purpose of the tunnel complex was to vent fumes from an underground uranium milling plant.