Quora question: Is North Korea as threatening as the American media would like me to believe or is it being hyped up for more views?

August 17, 2017

My response:  My answer is a bit lengthy, but I feel an earnest question deserves more than a pithy remark or two.

Foal Eagle is an annual joint military exercise conducted every March by the combined armed forces of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the United States.(1) “These exercises are defensive in nature, and they have been carried out regularly, openly and transparently for nearly 40 years,” according to Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis.(2)

During these periods, there has always been an increase in rhetoric from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). The fear of invasion by U.S. and South Korean forces has been typically met with increased propaganda and shows of strength by Pyongyang.

What is different now than in years past are the significant strides North Korea has made in its nuclear weapons capability, and Donald Trump, current President of the United States, whose own truculence and narcissism match and often exceed that of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Notwithstanding Trump’s repeated statements indicating a possible preemptive military strike in North Korea, South Korean President Moon Jae-in does not appear willing to leave this matter solely in the hands of Mr. Trump.

“Military action on the Korean peninsula can only be decided by South Korea and no one else can decide to take military action without the consent of South Korea,” said Moon. “The government, putting everything on the line, will block war by all means.”(3)

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has suggested that all parties involved should “make a correct judgment and wise choice by taking a responsible attitude toward history and people,”(4) and also suggested that South Korea and the United States suspend their military exercises, thus lessening North Korea’s fears of a perceived invasion.(5)

In my view, history suggests that North Korea seeks to be recognized as a sovereign nation and world power through its nuclear weapons capability, much like its revered ally, the People’s Republic of China, did under Mao Zedong in the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, North Korea’s path—diverting much of its resources toward its nuclear program while sacrificing the well-being of its people—is strikingly similar to China’s.

To this end, there will be continued bellicose rhetoric from North Korea. While past U.S. presidents have turned a deaf ear to such discourse, Mr. Trump apparently has no such internal restraint. His out-sized view of North Korea—possessor of perhaps 10 warheads—as a nuclear threat to the U.S. appears incongruous when one considers the nuclear warhead inventories of Russia, 7000; China, 270; or Pakistan, 140; as well as the United States own, and possibly retaliatory, arsenal of 6800.(6)

North Korean General Kim Rak-gyom, commander of the North’s strategic rocket forces, has decried Trump, saying, “sound dialogue is not possible with such a guy bereft of reason who is going senile.”(7)

Phil Mudd, former CIA counter-terrorism expert and current security consultant to CNN, warns that Trump’s ad-libbed pronouncements of dire consequences complicates the diplomatic process.(8) Mudd says that Trump has ratcheted up the crisis to the point where he has boxed himself into a corner; neither the American people nor the world has any idea just what is Trump’s foreign policy.(9)

Given all this, I feel the North Korean threat is being overblown by Trump, as much to appease his own puerile ego as it is meant to overshadow suspicions of ties by himself and/or his campaign to Russia, his lack of leadership, his domestic policy failures and views that he is an extension of this country’s extreme right wing.

(1) U.S., South Korea Launch Annual Foal Eagle Exercise
(2) Ibid.
(3) North Korea delays Guam missile firing; U.S. says dialogue up to Kim
(4) Ibid.
(5) Op. cit.
(6) Nuclear Weapons: Who Has What at a Glance
(7) North Korea just called Donald Trump senile
(8) Trump’s ad-libbed North Korean missile crisis
(9) Ibid.


Quora question: Has Kim Jong-un taken a step forward in relieving tensions?

August 16, 2017

My response:  I believe so. The conciliatory tone of North Korea’s message(1), when considered in light of its often turgid language of earlier missives, leads me to believe it was crafted—in part, at least—in Beijing.

To me, it appears intended to send key messages to the United States, and to the Western world.

  1. Back-channel diplomacy through an intermediary—China—can and has worked; it has diminished the harsh tenor of rhetoric from Pyongyang. This also sends the signal that Kim Jong-un is willing to continue to engage in these types of negotiations.
  2. It conveys a mood of relative reasonableness among the state’s leaders, one contrary to the current notion that North Korea was inured to the worldview of Kim Jong-un as a madman leading a hermit state toward Armageddon.
  3. It also provides a convenient out for North Korea. Should President Trump respond by ratcheting up the tone of his language, Kim Jong-un can then claim the moral high ground by pointing out the U.S.’s increasingly aggressive stance while he sought to deescalate the crisis.

(1) North Korea’s Kim to assess ‘foolish Yankees’ before deciding on Guam missile attack


Quora question: How worried should we be about the North Korea-US tensions?

August 14, 2017

My Response:  I believe my answer to a recent question, How worried should we be about the North Korea-US tensions? will suffice here. It is posted below.

I would be less worried if I thought there was an extant strategy to resolve the crisis. Donald Trump is not steeped in foreign policy expertise, nor is he an able statesman on par with the likes of China’s President Xi Jinping or Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

There have been hints of back channel diplomacy, as well as overt efforts with China to resolve the crisis with North Korea. In addition to these, I would like to see a multi-part plan that includes the following:

  • Back channel diplomacy through a third party, specifically China as well as private channels of communication involving Russia to facilitate a negotiated peace. Representatives from nations in the Pacific Rim, such as Japan and South Korea, should also be invited to the negotiating table. Richard Nixon accomplished an easing of tensions with China in 1971 by incorporating what was known then as “ping-pong diplomacy.”(1)
  • A cessation of the harsh back-and-forth rhetoric between President Trump and Pyongyang.
  • President Trump should agree to a state visit to China, at which time China’s President Xi Jinping could also invite Kim Jong-un and his representatives. Beijing is not quite neutral territory, but it affords China the key role in negotiating a peaceful settlement between North Korea and the United States.
  • Recognition of North Korea’s sovereignty and membership in the world’s nuclear club. This should be coupled with a request to have Pyongyang become a signatory to the United Nation’s Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).(2) This provides for safeguards verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).(3)
  • An offer of monetary incentives to North Korea as a means to entice them to the negotiating table.These incentives can take the form of normalizing trade relations between Washington and Pyongyang, and U.S. investment in the country. The latter incurs the fear of North Koreans that they would be exposed to the contagion of foreign influences. This could be assuaged by China, whose economic growth is a direct result of increased foreign trade and investment while still maintaining its communist ethos. The disproportionately high military spending(4) could thus be lessened by the influx of revenue from foreign investment.
  • A moratorium on U.S. talk regarding reunification of the two Koreas.
  • Implementation of an effective tax system in North Korea. The revenue from increased foreign investment would lessen the burden placed on state-owned industries.
  • A promise to ease and rescind economic sanctions against North Korea.

(1) https://www.nixonfoundation.org/…
(2) https://www.un.org/disarmament/w…
(3) Op. cit.
(4) http://www.heritage.org/index/co…


Quora question: What are the odds that sanctions against North Korea will make it stop nuclear and missile program?

August 9, 2017

My response:  The sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council against North Korea will not produce any appreciable results for several months. So how does one quantify the effect they may have?

First, let’s not forget that Pyongyang has been under U.N.-imposed sanctions since 2006, when it conducted its first nuclear test.(1) The United States, the European Union, South Korea and Japan imposed their own sanctions in 2016 after North Korea’s test of what it claimed was a hydrogen bomb.(2)

U.N. Security Council Resolution 2270 (S/RES/2270(2016) “[e]xpands arms embargo and non-proliferation measures” and freezes assets on the “Government of the DPRK [Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea] and its Workers’ Party entities.”(3) Yet, despite these extant sanctions, Pyongyang continues to develop its nuclear capabilities.

The recent U.S. intelligence assessment that North Korea has developed the ability to build a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on top of a ballistic missile is not only further evidence of their intent to be recognized as a member of the nuclear weapons club, but it also exposes a persistent flaw in Western thinking—the presupposition that North Korea is intellectually inferior to Western countries.

This narrow view of the North Korean people has handicapped the U.S. The intelligence community is continually surprised by the swift progress Pyongyang makes in its nuclear weapons program, leading to some of the more overwrought suggestions on how to respond.

Americans are rightly uneasy about the North Korean crisis; they are also unsure about President Trump’s ability to handle it. According to a CBS poll conducted on August 8th, nearly three in four people surveyed expressed uneasiness about the possibility of a conflict with North Korea, and 61 percent were uneasy about Mr. Trump’s ability to handle the crisis.(4)

In my estimation, any efforts to limit the growth of North Korea’s nuclear program and forestall a nuclear conflict with the United States lies primarily with the Peoples Republic of China and their sagacious President, Xi Jinping.

There is tangible proof that sanctions against North Korea, when applied by Beijing, can work.

China’s state-owned oil giant China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) has reportedly suspended exports of coal to North Korea. This is significant as almost all of North Korea’s coal and oil imports come from China.(5) Without Chinese oil, “North Korea would not survive on its own for three months and everything in North Korea would be paralysed [sic],” Cho Bong-hyun, a specialist on the North Korean economy at Seoul’s IB Bank, told Reuters in April.(6)

“In 2003, China closed an oil pipeline supplying North Korea for three days. Chinese officials said the closure was due to technical problems, but… the true intent was to put pressure on Pyongyang amid heightened tensions with the United States over its nuclear program.”(7) A few months later, North Korea joined six-party talks with the United States.(8)

North Korea serves as a buffer between the the pro-West government of South Korea and the communist regime in China. Beijing does not want a destabilized, nuclear-armed North Korea and its concomitant humanitarian crisis of millions of destitute refugees pouring over its northern border should the conflict with the U.S. escalate to full-scale war.

Beijing has long sought to be a major geopolitical player, on par with the U.S. and Russia. Recognizing its role as the linchpin in efforts to reign in Pyongyang by imposing the sanctions passed by the U.N. would accomplish this.

Despite the bellicose rhetoric from Pyongyang’s propaganda machine, Kim Jong-un is not a madman. As I have written before, I believe the unification of North- and South Korea is his ultimate goal. However, as nerves fray and patience wears thin, time may be a luxury neither Pyongyang nor Beijing can afford.

(1) Analysis | What the new U.N. sanctions on North Korea mean
(2) Punishing North Korea: A rundown on current sanctions
(3) United Nations Security Council Subsidiary Organs
(4) Americans uneasy about North Korea and Trump’s ability to handle it
(5) Chinese Oil Giant Cuts Off Fuel Sales to North Korea
(6) ibid
(7) China cuts oil supply to North Korea
(8) Opinion | China is suddenly leaning on North Korea — and it might be thanks to Trump


Quora question: How would the CIA go about infiltrating North Korea?

August 3, 2017

My response:  As has already been correctly pointed out, it is virtually impossible for any Western operative to successfully negotiate the landscape without attracting attention, or to ascend to a position where there would be access to sensitive information. For any HUMINT intelligence gathering in North Korea, CIA would work with KCIA in Seoul, despite the somewhat rocky, historical relationship between the two.(1)

A further reason for an alliance in this sort of operation is that differences in dialect and nuance between North and South Koreans would be best handled by native speakers.(2)

(1) Inside South Korea’s C.I.A.
(2) Korean is virtually two languages, and that’s a big problem for North Korean defectors


Quora question: If espionage is supposed to be about secrets and classified documents, why is everything about secret intelligence agencies out there in the media?

August 3, 2017

My response:  There are some intelligence operations that have appeared in the news. Many of these were declassified, albeit with references to extant sources and methods excised.(1) Others have appeared as the result of revelations from former CIA officers like the late Philip Agee, whose book “Inside the Company: CIA Diary”—revealing the names of 250 officers, fronts and foreign assets(1)—and monthly newsletter, Covert Action Information Bulletin, undermined intelligence operations throughout the world.(3) Still others have been released by unknown persons who felt exposure served the public good.

To say, however, that all operations are public knowledge is simply incorrect. The declivity to which you refer is a trope born from a dearth of knowledge of the activities of the intelligence community. Countless past and present operations, methodologies and sources remain unknown. And the efforts of numerous individuals in defense of this country will never be promulgated beyond the walls of agencies like CIA.

(1) https://www.cia.gov/library/publ…
(2) Philip Agee, 72, Is Dead; Exposed Other C.I.A. Officers
(3) COVERT ACTION INFORMATION BULLETIN: SPECIAL: COMPLETE CAIB INDEX


Quora question: How did journalists in contact with Snowden avoid criminal consequences?

July 30, 2017

My response:  Initially, there was a lot of noise in England about Scotland Yard bringing criminal charges against the editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger; Glenn Greenwald, one of its former reporters; and David Miranda, Mr. Greenwald’s partner who was stopped carrying copies of the files through Heathrow Airport in August 2013. (1)

It appears, however, that neither the journalists nor the newspaper itself could be prosecuted under the then provisions of Britain’s Official Secrets Acts.(2)

As a result of the disclosures provided by Edward Snowden and published by the Guardian, the Law Commission—”an independent body created by the Law Commissions Act 1965 to keep the law of England and Wales under review and to recommend reform where it is needed”(3)—suggested updates to the law that relates to The Officials Secret Acts “to ensure that the law is keeping pace with the challenges of the 21st century.”(4)

In broad terms, according to Law Commissioner Professor David Ormerod QC(5), these include:

  • Clarifying the scope of espionage type offences and those related to making unauthorised [sic] disclosures.
  • Proposed increased maximum sentences to reflect the seriousness of some conduct.
  • New measures to ensure sites are protected if necessary to safeguard national security.
  • Making clear that the criminal offences protecting sensitive information apply whether the conduct takes place at home or abroad.
  • Simplifying and modernising the language to remove anachronistic terms like “code words” and “enemy” and replacing them with language that will future proof the legislation.
  • Providing a process for concerns about illegality and impropriety to be investigated in an independent and rigorous way which is compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights.(5)

(1) Guardian journalists could face criminal charges over Edward Snowden leaks

(2) The Official Secrets Acts and Official Secrecy

(3) Law Commission

(4) Official Secrets Acts reviewed to meet the challenges of the 21st Century

(5) Op. cit.

(6) Op. cit.


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