HANOI, Vietnam — After cutting short his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Thursday, President Trump revealed that U.S. intelligence has a far more meticulous and detailed understanding of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile operations than has previously been revealed.
“We know the country very well, believe it or not. We know every inch of that country,” Mr. Trump said at the press conference. He suggested that U.S. negotiators share the intelligence with their North Korean counterparts during the two-day summit. “We brought many, many points up that I think they were surprised that we knew.”
Former intelligence officials told The Washington Times afterward that Mr. Trump’s comments suggested the administration embraced what has been a traditional strategy in past negotiations of telling the North Koreans what Washington has on them in order to make it clear to the Kim regime that U.S. officials will know if it is lying.
However, the president’s remarks also raised concern in some circles that — with no major breakthrough on denuclearization — sensitive information was effectively handed over to Mr. Kim this week, and that the North Korean regime will now be able to use that information to make adjustments to more effectively hide its clandestine nuclear activities.
David Maxwell, a retired U.S. Army Special Forces colonel and North Korea expert, said it’s a risk Mr. Trump’s team was likely well aware of but took anyway to make it clear to Mr. Kim that, as potential future negotiations play out, the U.S. side is simply not going to be deceived by low-level lying.
Going into the summit, said Mr. Maxwell, “many worried that we were going to get played. However, if we did confront them with specific intel about what the regime is doing, then we are showing Kim that we are not going to be played.”
“Confronting Kim with the intelligence may be worth the potential risk to sources and methods,” he added, because “this may allow us to play our long game and undermine Kim’s own long con.”
“If we have done this,” Mr. Maxwell said, “then we are showing Kim we will not turn a blind eye and that we do not need to make a deal just to make a deal, especially if it is a bad deal.”
His assessment, in an interview with The Times, underscored the complexity of intelligence issues that lurked in the backdrop of this week’s developments in Hanoi. Such issues have long been elusive, with even some of the most obvious questions about North Korea’s nuclear program often resulting in conflicting public reports.
The U.S. intelligence rarely declassifies aspects of its own reporting on clandestine North Korean activities. But sources within the community did not push back at a major think tank report in January that outlined how the Kim regime has as many as 20 secretive, undeclared missile bases peppered around the country’s mountainous terrain.
The report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington suggested some of the bases are vast, such as one known as “Sino-ri,” which houses a “regiment-sized unit equipped with Nodong-1 medium-range ballistic missiles” and is discretely run by the North Korean military.
On the nuclear weapons front, meanwhile, speculation swirled through the world’s media in October over the question of just how many nuclear warheads the Kim regime has successfully produced and stored in recent years.
A high-level South Korean official made headlines in October by estimating that Pyongyang has as many as 60 nuclear weapons. The figure was notably more than the some 25 to 30 that the most respected private assessments, including one last year by Stanford University scholars who based their findings on an estimate of how much highly enriched uranium North Korea is believed to have produced.
Regardless of the actual number, the South Korean assertion exposed the simple reality that there is disagreement over just how many bombs the North has developed. The South’s Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, who made the assertion unexpectedly during a parliamentary session, said that while there may be 60 bombs, the North also may have as few as just 20.
The difference between 20 and 60 is dramatic, and sources have told The Times that the lack of a public consensus on which figure is more accurate suggests South Korean, and perhaps U.S. intelligence, could really be in the dark on the matter.
The president suggested that Mr. Kim was forthcoming in talks about its well-known Yongbyon nuclear center, but that shutting the center wouldn’t satisfy Washington to the point of lifting sanctions on Pyongyang because U.S. officials know of other, secretive enrichment operations that could continue to operate.
“We have to have more than [Yongbyon],” Mr. Trump told reporters. “We had to have more than that because there are other things that you haven’t talked about, that you haven’t written about, that we found.”
When asked whether he was referring specifically to a second uranium enrichment plant, Mr. Trump said: “Exactly.”
“We had to do more than just one level,” he said, adding that the U.S. side would be giving “up all that leverage that’s been taking a long time to build” if it reduced sanctions without addressing enrichment activities beyond Yongbyon.
“We always told [North Korea] that we know what they have, so they don’t lie or try to cheat,” said Joseph DeTrani, a former CIA official who served has as a high-level U.S. negotiator in past talks with Pyongyang.
Others were more circumspect.
“We would not exactly be giving up our intel,” said Daniel Hoffman, also a former CIA official, in Hanoi this week offering analysis on the sidelines of the summit. “Remember, there has actually been a lot written in the press about how much we know about North Korea’s clandestine sites.”
At the same time, Mr. Hoffman said that overall, “this was a positive summit and that fact that the president did not cave to demands for sanctions relief without getting more in return is a good development.”
But it remains to be seen how the North Koreans will portray what went on here this week.
“U.S. intelligence can be expected to be going on the full court press now to study very carefully what Kim Jong-un thinks he got at this summit and what he ultimately takes away from it,” Mr. Hoffman said.
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