Jeffrey LewisNorth Korea: Intelligence Under Complexity

A North Korean poster from the UCLA Asia Institute.

Sig Harrison has a review of intelligence assessments about North Korea’s uranium enrichment program in Foreign Affairs which concludes “those assessments were exaggerated and blurred the important distinction between weapons-grade uranium enrichment … and lower levels of enrichment …”

Josh Marshall says that “precisely what Harrison argues is difficult to summarize in ‘they got’em’ or ‘they don’t got’em’ terms.” Difficult, but isn’t that what you expect from

Harrison’s argument draws heavily on a careful look at public intelligence estimates by Jonathan Pollack in the Naval War College Review. The broad outline of the story is also available in a May 2003 article in Arms Control Today by our own Paul Kerr.

The story of how US intelligence came to believe North Korea had a uranium enrichment program is an interesting story. Here is how DEPSECSTATE Armitage explained the development of the intelligence:

In a very small portion of that NIE in June 2002, there was a few comments about a growing belief that North Korea had engaged in at least an R&D project for highly enriched uranium.

In July 2002, the administration received very good intelligence which made us dramatically change our assessment from the DPRK being involved in just an R&D program. And we found, for instance, an order of magnitude difference in the estimate that we had received of how many centrifuges they might be obtaining, vice what we received in new intelligence, which showed that they were receiving and acquiring many, many more than was originally thought. And it led us to a rather intensive study, which resulted, in September 2002, in a memo to consumers from the intelligence community, which said that in our view, the North Koreans had embarked on a production program, no longer an R&D program. (S. HRG. 108–13, p.5)

The “very good” July 2002 intelligence, according to the Washington Post, was “a U.S. intelligence discovery that the isolated state was trying to acquire large amounts of high-strength aluminum …”

The September 2002 estimate (summarized for Congress in November) cited North Korea’s search for “centrifuge-related materials in large quantities…” and “recently learned that the North is constructing a plant that could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for two or more nuclear weapons per year when fully operational—which could be as soon as mid-decade.”

The Washington Post also reported that, in November 2001, “intelligence analysts at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory completed a highly classified report [that] concluded that North Korea had begun construction of a plant to enrich uranium that could be used in nuclear weapons.” Asked directly about the report, Armitage replied that he did not “put much stock” in the report, noting the “was part of a joint energy intelligence assessment [confined] to research and development, not a production of highly enriched uranium.”

Now that analysts were convinced that North Korea had a massive centrifuge program based largely on Pyongyang’s interest in an unusually large amount ot special aluminum, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly confronted North Korea Vice Minister Kim Gye Gwan in 2002. Another Sig—Hecker—picks up the story:

But the conversation went something like this, is the—from the American side, you know, [Jack] Pritchard [former U.S. special envoy for DPRK negotiations] was also there with Assistant Secretary Kelly, and they thought they heard, quite clearly, that the North Koreans had admitted such a program. The North Koreans use a lot of language, from what was said there, about having the right to have any weapons program that they would like, and that they have a much more powerful weapon. Then, later on, they said that that was the unity of their people, for example. And what they said is that they have a Korean-language transcript from their scribes, of the meeting, and that that transcript presumably shows that they never specifically admitted it, that there is some question of the ambiguity of the language used. (S. HRG. 108–412, p. 31)

Harrison suggests that “worst-case” planning and ideology have driven inflated threat perceptions. I would suggest another hypothesis—the one developed by my dissertation chair, John Steinbruner, in his book The Cybernetic Theory of Decision (which was to have been titled Decision Under Complexity). John argues that “a great deal of information processing is conducted apparently prior to and certainly independently of conscious direction and that in this activity the mind routinely performs logical operations of considerable power.”

John is particularly taken with the subjective management of inconsistencies. It is plausible, I think, that Kelly heard what he expected, not what the Vice Minister said, and that intelligence analysts, charged with finding an centrifuge plant that didn’t exist, simply misidentified one of the numerous, suspicious facilities in North Korea.