As Tensions Simmer, CIA Says It Will Spy Even Harder on Pyongyang

The Agency's rare public announcement follows multiple North Korean missile launches, a worrisome military parade, and a massive show of force.

Kim Jong Un
Wong Maye-E—AP

In April 2017, The War Zone detailed the multitude of ways America keeps watch over North Korea from the air, including spy satellites, surveillance aircraft, and drones. Now, in the face of Pyongyang's missile tests and public displays of potential advanced weaponry, there are reports that the U.S. Intelligence Community and the Pentagon are further expanding efforts to gather intelligence on the reclusive country .

On May 10, 2017, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) announced it was creating a new office focused specifically on North Korean nuclear and missile activities. The Korea Mission Center would bring staff from across the agency under the direction of an unnamed “veteran operation officer,” according to an unusual official press release.

“Creating the Korea Mission Center allows us to more purposefully integrate and direct CIA efforts against the serious threats to the United States and its allies emanating from North Korea,” CIA Director Mike Pompeo said in the statement.  “It also reflects the dynamism and agility that CIA brings to evolving national security challenges.”

In addition to getting information from satellites and manned and unmanned spy planes, the press release noted that the Korea Mission Center would be able to call on the “full resources, capabilities, and authorities of the Agency.” This would include other assets, including human intelligence from sources such as agents and defectors.

The notice did not say where CIA would situate the new unit, though the group could definitely perform its functions from within the Agency’s campus at Langley, Virginia, while still coordinating with other U.S. and foreign intelligence and security organizations. It is possible that some or all of the staff could be permanently situated at other locations at home and abroad, including within the CIA’s stations throughout Northeast Asia.

It’s not clear how this new entity will differ from the Agency’s existing operations regarding North Korea. The idea that there wasn't already a unit specializing in the insular country is difficult to believe. The newly created group could reflect President Donald Trump’s administration’s attempts to apply additional pressure on authorities in Pyongyang. The rare public announcement followed months of increasingly tough rhetoric by President Donald Trump’s administration and similar responses from North Korean officials, which The War Zone has been actively following. With regards to North Korea, the “era of strategic patience is over,” Vice President Mike Pence said on April 17, 2017, during a surprise visit to the Demilitarized Zone. “We want to see North Korea abandon its reckless path of the development of nuclear weapons, and also its continual use and testing of ballistic missiles is unacceptable.”

The CIA's new plan could also signal Washington's desire to keep up the pressure on the Communist regime in spite of the results of South Korea's special presidential election following the impeachment of right-wing President Park Geun Hye. Park had taken a hard-line stance on North Korea and was a proponent of increased military and security cooperation with the Untied States. By comparison, South Korea's new president Moon Jae In, head of South Korea's center-left Democratic Party, has said his country needs to be able to "say no" to its powerful American allies and has openly discussed the possibility of visiting Pyongyang for talks with the North Korean regime.

KCNA

Of course, the desire for renewed or increased attention on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs is hardly surprising. The CIA new initiative comes less than a month after Pyongyang’s annual Day of the Sun military parade. The holiday as a whole revolves around the cult of personality of North Korea’s first leader, Kim Il Sung, and celebrates the day of his birth, April 15. The elder Kim died in 1994.

Among other things, the event has become an opportunity for the authoritarian regime to showcase its latest military achievements. Though it featured other systems, the 2017 parade was a missile bonanza, with a host of never before seen designs rolling through the country’s capital. It is very likely that some of these, including what appeared to be two different types of containerized intercontinental ballistic missiles, were only mockups.

North Korea followed up the public display with a missile launch from the country’s naval base at Sinpo on the East Sea. An apparent failure, the unidentified missile reportedly exploded shortly after launch. Another test at Pukchang airfield, near the country’s western coast, reportedly failed on April 28, 2017. Satellite imagery suggested Pyongyang would also conduct a sixth underground test of a nuclear weapon, though there was no evidence this had occurred by the end of April.

Regardless of these failures to perform, it’s important to note that experimentation of any kind can provide valuable information. As The War Zone’s own Tyler Rogoway pointed out in a detailed analysis of the events in April 2017, Pyongyang’s weaponeers could have learned new lessons from these tests and may have even command detonated the missiles intentionally to prevent them from inadvertently crossing into international territory and being shot down or otherwise falling onto an undesirable location within the country itself. There is also the fact that South Korea routinely searches for the remains of rockets after these tests to gather its own intelligence, a situation North Korea could be looking to avoid.

The CIA could use its resources to spy on North Korea’s conventional military developments and deployments, as well as political intrigue and other illicit activities, too. In April 2017, to commemorate the 85th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army, North Korea put on a massive display of traditional firepower, involving hundreds of artillery pieces – including dozens of its 170mm Koksan self-propelled guns – and submarines. In February 2017, Kim Yong Nam, half brother of North Korea’s current leader Kim Jong Un, died in what appeared to be a state-sponsored assassination in Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur International Airport. And then there’s matter of the extensive networks Pyongyang uses to evade international sanctions.

The Agency won’t be doing its work alone, either. “The new Mission Center will work closely with the Intelligence Community and the entire U.S. national security community,” the press notice added. Other intelligence entities, such as the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), National Security Agency (NSA) and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), are no doubt ramping up similar efforts to identify and assess North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities.

In addition, the CIA and other members of the Intelligence Community work closely with military intelligence units. The most obvious supporting organizations would be the Air Force’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) and the service’s nuclear weapons-focused Air Force Technical Applications Center (AFTAC) have been vital in tracking the development of Pyongyang’s increasingly threatening arsenal.

AP

Most notably, AFTAC’s Technical Surveillance Squadron operates the U.S. Atomic Energy Detection System, which fuses information from sensors on board satellites, inside aircraft, under the sea, and at dozens of land-based seismic monitoring stations around the world. Analysts use the equipment to determine whether a disturbance of some kind is actual a nuclear explosion. The unit’s other squadrons conduct other aerial and sea-borne intelligence looking for nuclear activities. In 2015, the Center added a Cyber Capabilities Squadron to support and protect its global computer networks.

NASIC’s focus is on potential air and space threats, such as foreign aircraft and missiles. It regularly publishes public reports on the state of global ballistic and cruise missile development. The center published its most recent unclassified review in 2013, which prominently featured North Korea’s existing work on all types of ballistic missiles.

“North Korea has an ambitious ballistic missile development program and has exported missiles and missile technology to other countries, including Iran and Pakistan,” the analysts noted. “Continued efforts … show the determination of North Korea to achieve long-range ballistic missile and space launch capabilities.”

KCNA

Though not necessarily dedicated to nuclear and missile threats like the Air Force’s units, U.S. Army assets in South Korea could feed information to the CIA’s new Korea office, as well. On May 7, 2017, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported the top American command in the country was considering activating a new military intelligence battalion to conduct human intelligence operations.

"I see high chances that the U.S. troops will make use of the country's human intelligence gathering channels like the Central Intelligence Agency," an unnamed official from the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS) said, according to Yonhap. The NIS itself has a long-standing relationship with the CIA.

So far, neither the U.S. Army nor U.S. Forces Korea has confirmed the plan to stand up the unit, rumored to be the future 524th Military Intelligence Battalion. The battalion previously served on the Korean Peninsula from 1982 until its inactivation sometime in 2014. In 2005 and 2006, interrogators from the unit helped man the Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center (JIDC) in Iraq, which included operations at the detention centers at Camp Bucca and Camp Cropper, as well as the infamous Abu Ghraib prison.

As of January 2017, the 501st Military Intelligence Brigade in South Korea had four subordinate battalions. These included the 3rd Military Intelligence Battalion conducting aerial surveillance missions, the 532nd Military Intelligence Battalion running counter-intelligence missions to guard against enemy spies, and the 719th Military Intelligence Battalion specializing in detecting and monitoring enemy communications and other signals in cooperation with the NSA.

AP

The reserve component 368th Military Intelligence Battalion, which also performs counter-intelligence duties, was nominally attached to the brigade despite being situated at various locations in California. U.S. Pacific Command’s 500th Military Intelligence Brigade also had another counter-spying unit based in Japan.

The CIA and its new Korea center may actively coordinate with American and South Korean special operations forces, too. Intelligence collection is a key special operations mission and there have been reports in the past about elite troops infiltration into the North or at least planning to do so in a crisis. In March 2017, the Pentagon denied South Korean media reports that SEAL Team Six was training for a potential "decapitation strike" to neutralize North Korea's leadership and nuclear and missile sites. In August 2016, however, then President Barack Obama did approve a Pentagon proposal to put U.S. Special Operations Command at the forefront of any U.S. military response to a situation involving weapons of mass destruction.

In short, the CIA has many partners it can call upon in the region. And regardless of how much the new Korea Mission Center actually changes the Agency’s sources and methods of operation, the United States and its allies are definitely well position to uncover more details about North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com