WASHINGTON, APRIL 15, 2013 (MANILA TIMES) Published on 13 April 2013 Hits: 384 Written by AFP - Conflicting accounts from United States (US) intelligence about the status of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program underscore just how difficult it is for American spy agencies to penetrate the inscrutable regime in Pyongyang, officials and experts said.

The world’s most powerful intelligence apparatus is often left to guesswork when it comes to tracking a regime that has cut off its population from the outside world.

“I also have to say that North Korea, of course, is now and always has been one of the, if not the, toughest intelligence targets,” National Intelligence Director James Clapper told lawmakers at a hearing on Thursday.

The spy chief acknowledged that North Korea’s young, untested leader Kim Jong-Un remained a mystery figure whose motives and mindset were largely unknown.

“There’s no telling how he’s going to behave,” Clapper said.

The US gleans most of its intelligence from satellites tracking North Korean military movements, as Western spies cannot effectively operate in such a tightly-controlled dictatorship.

“It is virtually impossible to run a human spy in the north and penetrate the Korean state,” Bruce Riedel, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer and fellow at the Brookings Institution, told AFP.

The vexing challenge posed by North Korea was driven home when a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report came to light Thursday that seemed to paint a more dangerous picture of the country’s nuclear weapons, unlike previous accounts from US officials.

The DIA report, revealed by a lawmaker from Colorado with a keen interest in missile defense funding, concluded Pyongyang likely had succeeded in miniaturizing a nuclear warhead that could be fit onto a ballistic missile.

Senior US officials, caught off guard by the report, played down the document as a “low-level” assessment and insisted North Korea did not have nuclear-armed missiles ready to fire and that war on the Korean peninsula remained a remote possibility.

North Korea has “pieces” of a nuclear program “but they haven’t shown the ability to deploy nuclear weapons,” said a US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

This message was reinforced Friday by White House spokesman Jay Carney, who insisted that it was “our assessment that North Korea has not demonstrated the capability to deploy a nuclear-armed missile.”

But officials admitted that what North Korea has or has not developed is uncertain. And the United States and its allies must now wait for Pyongyang’s next move, amid intense speculation it will launch medium-range missiles in coming days in a show of military might.

In other countries, US spies would be scooping up “chatter” at a moment of crisis. But hermetically sealed North Korea, with little Internet access and a restricted number of mobile phones, renders American eavesdropping tools less useful.

Mobile phones, however, have come to the more privileged capital Pyongyang, where about a million cell phones are in use, providing an opening to foreign intelligence, said David Maxwell, a retired US Army colonel who served with special forces units in Asia.

Nevertheless, he said trying to discern the leadership’s plans and internal rivalries was beyond the reach of the US spy agencies.

“We can collect a lot of information from satellites and from other means on capabilities, but intentions are really key. The way the system is designed, they are able to protect elite decision-making and the elite apparatus,” said Maxwell, associate director at George­town University’s Center for Security Studies.

No high-level official has defected from North Korea since 1997, he said.

“I just don’t think anyone, not the Chinese, not the Russians, is able to penetrate the inner circle to be able to determine with any amount of certainty what their intentions are.”

And while the North Korean regime’s clumsy propaganda is often fodder for ridicule, the regime has proved adept at fooling Western spies while hiding sensitive weapons-work underground.

“The North Koreans are masterful at deception,” he said.

In 1999, US officials grew alarmed over what appeared to be a nuclear facility, but after an inspection was arranged following laborious negotiations, the site turned out to be nothing more than a large hole in the ground.

“When we do see things, it’s because they want us to see them. They know we’re watching.”

Kerry presses China to help end N. Korea tensions Published on 13 April 2013 Hits: 217 Written by AFP

[US Secretary of State John Kerry (left) shakes hands with China‘s Premier Li Keqiang during a meeting at the Zhongnanhai compound in Beijing on April 13. AFP PHOTO]

BEIJING: US Secretary of State John Kerry met top officials of North Korea’s key ally and aid provider China on Saturday to press them to rein in a defiant Pyongyang, seeking Beijing’s help to defuse soaring nuclear tensions.

Kerry met first with China’s foreign minister Wang Yi after flying in from talks in South Korea with President Park Geun-Hye, where he offered public US support for her plans to initiate some trust-building with the North.

The Korean peninsula has been engulfed by escalating military tensions and dire threats of nuclear war ever since North Korea conducted a rocket test last December and a nuclear test in February.

“Obviously there are enormously challenging issues in front of us, and I look forward to having that conversation with you today,” Kerry told Wang.

Wang agreed the visit came at a “critical moment”.

China has backed North Korea since the 1950-53 Korean War and could wield tremendous leverage over the isolated communist regime thanks to the vital aid it provides, including almost all of its neighbor’s energy imports.

But analysts say it is wary of pushing too hard for fear of destabilizing North Korea, which could send a wave of hungry refugees flooding into China and ultimately lead to a reunified Korea allied with the United States.

China and the US have a sometimes strained rela­tionship, with Beijing uneasy over Washington’s ‘rebalancing’ towards Asia, and Kerry’s first visit to the region since becoming America’s top diplomat has been completely overshadowed by the Korean crisis.

Washington is seeking to persuade Beijing to help rein in the bellicose threats from North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, and bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table over its suspect nuclear program.

“I think it’s clear to everybody in the world that no country in the world has as close a relationship or as significant an impact on the DPRK (North Korea) than China,” Kerry said in Seoul after meeting South Korean leaders.

China is estimated to provide as much as 90 percent of its neighbor’s energy imports, 80 percent of its consumer goods and 45 percent of its food, according to the US-based Council on Foreign Relations.

Despite intelligence reports that the North has prepared what would be a highly-provocative, medium-range missile launch, Park has in recent days made some conciliatory gestures to the regime in Pyongyang.

In a meeting with her ruling party officials on Friday, Park said the South should meet with the North and “listen to what North Korea thinks”.

While Kerry berated Pyong­yang’s “unacceptable” rhetoric and warned that any missile launch would be a “huge mistake,” he also took pains to stress US backing for Park’s initiative.

“President Park was elected with a different vision for the possibilities of peace and we honor that vision ... and we hope that vision is the one that will actually take hold here,” he said.

In another sign of US hopes of defusing tensions, Kerry did not visit the truce village of Panmunjom, a common stop for foreign leaders visiting Seoul.

In a joint statement released just before Kerry left Seoul, the United States said it welcomed the “trust building process” proposed by Park.

Kerry was to meet China’s new President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang later Saturday.

Without naming any countries, Xi said recently that “no one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains”.

After China, Kerry heads to Japan which is also deeply involved in the North Korea issue and which deployed Patriot missiles around Tokyo this week as anticipation of a missile launch by the North’s mounted.

Kerry said he hoped China, Japan and the United States would be able to find the “unity” required to offer a “very different set of alternatives for how we can proceed and ultimately how we can defuse this situation”. AFP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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