As I wrapped up a meeting last night and sat at the bar sipping club soda while debriefing with parties involved, the conversation turned to current events and the question was asked:
“So… North Korea… how scared do you think we should be?”
Turns out this is the big fat old elephant in the middle of many people’s living rooms, one the media has been somewhat tip-toeing around, and it merits, at this stage of the sabre-rattling game, at least some analysis.
I was originally compelled to write about this the other day, when I ran across a piece at NPR that just knocked my socks off. But let me set it up:
The Daily Beast ran a story today asking the same question my colleague asked – just how scared should we be about North Korea – and while there are many salient points to discuss on the topic, let’s start with the one that connects to the NPR piece. What seems clear in looking for general consensus on just how scary North Korea and their Boy Leader, Kim Jong Un, are, is that there is none. Or at least not much. One of the reasons? Lack of good intelligence. From the Daily Beast piece:
Inside the U.S. intelligence community, the issue of North Korea’s progress is hotly debated. One problem is that while U.S. spy satellites can monitor the country from overhead, most of North Korea’s nuclear work is done underground. North Korea is so closed off that the CIA has also had trouble recruiting high-level spies inside the country.
Now hold that thought. We’ll switch over to NPR at this point. So while the CIA can’t seem to cobble a decent spy network together, American tourists are still finding their way into the country and what they’re seeing is bizarre. Now, one might question the sanity of a westerner choosing North Korea as a destination vacation but tourism remains a vibrant industry there. And what, at least some, of the tourists have found is not necessarily in lock-step with information the media is trumpeting in terms of what, exactly, is going on in this looming country.
International TV broadcasters have been repeatedly showing tanks trundling through Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square in a demonstration of North Korean national power.
But when Patrick Thornquist, a Chicago teacher visiting the North Korean capital at the end of last week, arrived in the square, he was surprised by what he saw. This iconic square — Pyongyang’s political, military and symbolic heart — was full of children rollerblading and shouting with joy.
One of leader Kim Jong Un’s contributions to the nation has been building roller-skating parks and promoting entertainment facilities. And Thornquist was struck by the fact that, on watching the news later that day, it was still featuring footage of tanks.
“It was definitely interesting to see tanks on BBC in the hotel, as if that was that day, when we’d been in that square a couple of hours earlier and nothing like that was happening,” he says.
I found this stunning. While one can extrapolate that even if children were skating in the square their intrepid leader could be behind the scenes (or underground, as it were) like a pudgy Dr. Evil setting inexorable doom into motion, the point made by Mr. Thornquist speaks volumes about just how manipulative the media can be in reporting the story. Of course, it’s possible the BBC is an unwitting dupe in this chicanery, but, nonetheless, it makes it clear that … not much is clear.
Which is why experts in the military and intelligence communities are in a bit of a conundrum about projecting just how much alarm to trumpet. North Korea has tested nuclear devices three times in the last seven years but it’s still a stretch from there to launching a true and planet-shattering nuclear missile. And when the military and intelligence communities are looked to for clarity on just how close we are, just how realistic it is to expect that Jong-un would actually get to that terrifying point, that is where things get muddy, where the team is divided.
Bruce Bennett, an expert on North Korea’s military at the RAND Corporation]says he doesn’t know whether North Korea could place a nuclear warhead on a missile, but that South Korean defense experts think it’s possible. “Many of my South Korean colleagues argue they can put a warhead on a missile and may have done so already,” Bennett says. “I don’t know for sure, but my guessing based on what my South Korean colleagues are telling me is that they can.”
So that’s Mr. Bennett’s opinion, certainly a qualified one. Then there’s A.Q. Khan, called the “father of the Pakistani nuclear program,” who went to a North Korean nuclear facility in 1999 and told Simon Henderson, a British journalist, that he had witnessed their possession of boxes of components for “three finished warheads that could be assembled within an hour.”
Henderson, now an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said, “Khan holds the abilities of North Korean scientists and engineers in high regard. Although lacking the best technical equipment, they are well trained and determined. I fear Khan was telling the truth about what he saw in North Korea in 1999.”
So that’s Mr. Kahn’s opinion as translated by Mr. Henderson. Then we move to a Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists, who saw “no definitive evidence” that North Korea had developed their technology to the point that they could miniaturize it enough to create a transportable warhead.
Ferguson said that to date the North Koreans have also not developed a missile capable of reentering earth’s atmosphere from space, something needed for multistaged long-range missiles capable of hitting the U.S.
Both Ferguson and Simon Henderson addressed the issue of whether or not Iran and North Korea are in the process of sharing technology as a way to get both their countries up-to-speed more quickly than expected, a daunting prospect considered when President Obama was visiting Israel. Here, again, we have conflicting opinions. Henderson made this point:
“We know that the North Koreans have shared missile technology with the Iranians,” Henderson said. “In light of evidence to the contrary, it would be irresponsible not to assume they have also shared nuclear-weapons technology and possibly centrifuge technology with Iran.”
But Charles Ferguson is far less convinced:
“On the nuclear-warhead front, I am not aware of significant evidence there has been cooperation between the two countries, but I cannot rule it out either,” he said.
Are you confused yet? Brushing off your Cold War drills, cleaning out the bomb shelter, stocking up on duct tape? Or are you seriously and bonafidedly terrified? The problem is, no one seems to have a definitive answer of just what you should feel. Which brings us back to American tourist in North Korea, Patrick Thornquist:
“At the beginning, I was a little bit nervous,” he says. “But one of the guides said, ‘Calm down, we’re all people.’ … What surprised me most is how there really wasn’t any anti-American talk directly to me.”
The message to the domestic audience is that the outside world is bullying North Korea, and its very existence is threatened. This has the effect of uniting its citizens behind their young new leader, no matter how much hardship they’re facing.
The dueling realities have left Thornquist completely baffled after his trip.
“You try to grasp what is real and what is not. You’re trying to find that balance between what your media tells you and what they’re telling you because they’re very far off,” he says. “It’s crazy.”
Yes, it is. And it leaves us struggling to ascertain the true, honest, un-spun threat level.
So this is what I told my friend sitting at that bar discussing current events last night: pay attention, keep an eye on the story, but until there’s more to worry about, don’t worry. If this is the calm before the storm, we’ll know soon enough. Until then, the kids are skating in the plaza and the rest of us have work to do.