What do intelligence leaks about North Korea tell us?

A passerby walks past a street monitor showing news of North Korea's fresh threat in Tokyo, Japan, August 9, 2017. REUTERS/Issei Kato - RTS1AZ4Y

For an administration purportedly hypersensitive to leaks of classified information, major disclosures about the status of the North Korean nuclear weapons program emanating from unnamed U.S. officials ought to be deeply disconcerting.

Multiple leaks to reporters at the Washington Post and New York Times over the past two weeks indicate that the intelligence community has sharply altered its collective judgment about the number of nuclear warheads in the North Korean inventory; the North’s ability to miniaturize its weapons to fit atop its ballistic missiles; and the anticipated date by which a North Korean nuclear weapon could be delivered to the continental United States. These changes make the threats posed by North Korea appear much more ominous and immediate, though this also depends on how to evaluate Pyongyang’s intentions.

But there’s a troubled history with such intelligence shifts in the past. That should inject caution, if not outright skepticism, in evaluating these new assessments. No serious analyst would contest the undoubted advances in North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities over the past several years. But this doesn’t mean that new assessments should be accepted at face value. Analysts must ask questions about the policy agendas that could be advanced by presenting new intelligence judgments in public.

On July 25, the Washington Post reported that “North Korea will be able to field a reliable, nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile as early as next year,” based on a new assessment from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). Its reporters added: “North Korea has not yet demonstrated an ability to build a miniaturized nuclear warhead that could be carried by one of its missiles.”

The latest leak, published by the Post in the early afternoon of August 8, painted the most dire assessment yet from U.S. officials with access to relevant intelligence (also the DIA, in this case). The story disclosed that the new report concluded that “North Korea has successfully produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles.” The story also describes a separate analysis—called only “another intelligence assessment,” and remains unnamed—that has concluded that North Korea could now have as many as 60 nuclear warheads in its inventory. The new number is more than double the maximum estimate of 20 to 25 weapons by Siegfried Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and now a professor at Stanford University. Hecker was the last American scientist to visit North Korea’s nuclear weapons complex, in late 2010. Most estimates of the size of the North’s inventory have been far more conservative, generally in the range of 12 to 15 to 20.

Without access to the information and methodologies on which these estimates are based, it is impossible to render an informed judgment about their credibility. The intended audience for these leaks is also unclear. But the disclosures correlate closely with North Korea’s two successful launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles in July. The acceleration of the North’s weapons programs has undoubtedly triggered revised estimates by the intelligence community. As John Maynard Keynes famously challenged: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” But there’s a possibility that these new estimates have been selectively leaked to the press, and have yet to be scrutinized through requisite official channels, let alone briefed to the Congress.

Senior U.S. officials, notably Director of Central Intelligence Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, have also offered highly pessimistic judgments in recent weeks about the ability of the United States to slow the North’s nuclear weapon and missile advances. In a television interview on July 5, McMaster declared that the possibility of a nuclear-armed North Korean ICBM would be “intolerable, from the president’s perspective,” and that “we have to provide all options…and that includes a military option.”

Regardless of the estimated numbers in the North Korean weapons inventory, any U.S. military responses to the North’s weapons capabilities could trigger a peninsular conflict that almost defies imagination. President Trump’s abrupt warning to North Korea on the afternoon of August 8 that U.S. actions could involve “fire and fury like the world has never seen” generates bold headlines, but it also heightens risks levels beyond what the current facts warrant.

North Korea’s accelerated development of its nuclear weapon and missile programs is deeply worrying to the United States and the countries in the region, which are most immediately affected by spiraling tensions in East Asia that could escalate into the most severe crisis since the Korean War—and potentially something even worse. If the United States is contemplating actions even remotely akin to what President Trump’s warning implies, the United States has a compelling obligation to consult closely with its allies in Seoul and in Tokyo about their views and deeper anxieties. China would also be affected profoundly by such a crisis, and cannot be left in the dark.

As the administration contemplates the most worrisome of scenarios, there is an imperative for sobriety and quiet deliberation. However, intelligence leaks generate anxieties, political pressure, and (quite possibly) unforeseen consequences. Sometimes, silence is golden, and the summer of 2017 needs to be such a time.