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How Does North Korea Stay So Secretive?

December 20, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The fact that U.S. intelligence apparently didn't notice the death of Kim Jong-il for 48 hours is a demonstration of how impenetrable North Korea continues to be. Margaret Warner discusses the mysterious nation with former senior CIA and State Department intelligence analyst Robert Carlin, now at Stanford University.
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MARGARET WARNER: One key development that U.S. intelligence apparently didn’t see, for 48 hours last weekend, was that Kim Jong-il was dead. It was another demonstration of how impenetrable the nuclear-armed North Korea continues to be.

One person who has tried to pierce the veil is Robert Carlin, a former senior CIA and State Department intelligence analyst. He also was involved in U.S.-North Korea negotiations in the ’90s, and is now a fellow at Stanford University.

And, Bob Carlin, welcome.

I should also say you have been to North Korea more than 30 times.

ROBERT CARLIN, former intelligence official: That’s right.

MARGARET WARNER: So, explain how U.S. and South Korean intelligence, presumably watching the North like hawks, you have an ailing leader there, he dies on Saturday morning on a train, not even in his own home, supposedly, reportedly, and it’s — we don’t know that until it’s announced on North Korean TV on Monday morning their time.

ROBERT CARLIN: What it proves is, if the North Koreans want to keep a secret, they know how to do it, I think.

The death of a leader would be one of the most closely held secrets that the leadership would want to keep to itself while it was making the preparations, making sure all the security and military preparations were in place. So it’s not a surprise to me.

The question is, did it leak out in North Korea ahead of time, and if it did leak out, did we miss those signs? And I don’t know the answer to that.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, when you say they go to extraordinary lengths and they’re very good at keeping secrets, what do they do that a lot of other countries that presumably want to keep secrets don’t do? I mean, let’s take in the human intelligence area.

ROBERT CARLIN: Access, for example, to North Korea is very limited. It’s not easy to get in. There are not a lot of people going out.

That has changed a lot in the past few years. There are many more outsiders going to North Korea than used to be the case. And there are many more North Koreans leaving the country, if only to go to China. So the question of access has been altered, and probably been improved from the standpoint of information.

It’s not just secret information. It’s just basic information about the place. And there are more people going around the countryside, where you can get a sense of what it looks like, what the people are like, what the economic conditions are like.

MARGARET WARNER: But if you take something pretty crucial, like the fact that — I mean, the U.S. intelligence long suspected that they were building some kind of uranium enrichment facility. They built it and pretty much in plain sight at the Yongbyon nuclear site for, what, 18 months?

And, again, nobody knew this until a Stanford scientist was invited by North Korea to come and kind of show it off to him last year. Now, why wouldn’t spy satellites, drones, other kinds of intercepts pick that up?

ROBERT CARLIN: I was part of that Stanford group that went to the facility.

And I can tell you that when we went inside and saw the number of centrifuges, the first thing that leaped into our mind was, how did they do this without anyone knowing?

And I don’t have any idea. And I’m assuming that there is a very careful study of this in the intelligence community about what they missed so that doesn’t happen again.

MARGARET WARNER: But this was an above-ground — this wasn’t built underground?

ROBERT CARLIN: No. Well, much of the facility was above ground. I think the centrifuges themselves might be one step below or something.

MARGARET WARNER: OK.

Now, go back to the human intelligence, because as we saw in the tape piece and anyone who goes to South Korea knows there are, what, thousands of defectors going into both China and South Korea.

Aren’t they all interviewed? Why isn’t their information useful, more useful?

ROBERT CARLIN: I think the South Koreans try to do a good job of interviewing as many as they can or picking out those that are most important.

The question is, should the United States try to do more in this regard? And one of our problems is, the first place they go is into China. And China is not a very good place in which the United States government could interview North Korean defectors. The Chinese would not…

MARGARET WARNER: They don’t permit it?

ROBERT CARLIN: No, they wouldn’t be hospitable to something like that. So, we have got a big problem there.

In any case, the defectors can tell you what’s going on in their locality, what they felt, what their family thinks. But most of them don’t know directly what’s going on in Pyongyang.

MARGARET WARNER: Go back to the technical intelligence. I mean, you heard in that report, I mean, that there are some people in the country that have smuggled cell phones. Surely, some in the leadership use the Internet. I mean, why can’t that be penetrated better? Or do they have different systems? How does it work?

ROBERT CARLIN: I have been out of the government for a while.

When I was in it, I always thought our technical intelligence was quite good, that we have the facilities, we spend the money, we have the expertise. So, if it’s possible now, I would have to guess that we’re doing a pretty good job on technical intelligence and collection.

I think our problems are more in the realm of analysis. And that’s not to say it’s all horrible, but I think that’s a place in which we could do more to improve things.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean taking the clues you do get and analyzing them.

ROBERT CARLIN: That’s right. That’s right.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, in the brief time we have left, what are the implications of this when it comes to something, really crucial information, such as the pace of their progress on both missile and nuclear warhead capability and marrying them, their intentions in that regard, or the power struggles reportedly going on or believed to be going on now that Kim Jong-il has died?

ROBERT CARLIN: If there are, you know, public manifestations of that struggle in terms of photographs or statements, things like that, I think we will parse the available material and begin to pick it up.

If it happens completely behind the scenes, then obviously it depends on clandestine human intelligence. And that’s a question that’s pretty closely guarded in the U.S. government, so there’s not much I could say.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Robert Carlin, thank you for saying what you could, and thanks for being here.

ROBERT CARLIN: Thank you.