As control of the regime passed from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un, my assessment of the threat posed by the Hermit Kingdom never changed. The “Dear Leaders” didn’t want a fight but kept the mechanics of war set on a hair trigger, and any sane policy on North Korea needed to respect that dynamic.
There is a sacred writ of intelligence officers never to get involved in creating policy. Our job is to present unbiased facts to reduce uncertainty for decision makers, whether they’re in the Oval Office, at the negotiating table or on the battlefield.
As director of national intelligence under President Barack Obama, I was careful not to advocate specific policies in National Security Council meetings. But I told President Obama in private that our stance on North Korea was flawed.
Our policy was never to discuss what the United States might do for the North Korean government until it first agreed to give up its nuclear ambitions. That was a dead end, I told him, and merely ensured that no progress would be made.
I had not fully appreciated the consuming siege mentality that pervades North Korea until I visited and engaged directly with senior officials there in November 2014. They work hard to perpetuate the belief that Americans are always on the brink of invading and that nuclear weapons are their only chance of survival.
Neither they nor we really know whether their weapons would work, but in many ways, it doesn’t matter. We have to assume that if they do launch an intercontinental ballistic missile, it will reach our shores and detonate. Thus, without even proving they have the capability, they’ve created nuclear deterrence.
I believe, and I told President Obama, that North Korea won’t budge on its nuclear program because they see us as an existential threat. If we’re to make a breakthrough, we need to consider capitalizing on our biggest strengths: openness and information, even if we don’t take nuclear weapons off the table.
Today, the situation in North Korea seems poised for change — whether for better or for worse remains to be seen. [Continue reading…]