Remarks by the Deputy Director of Central Intelligence
John E. McLaughlin
Texas A&M Conference
“North Korea: Engagement or Confrontation”

(as delivered)

17 April 2001

You’ve given me a tough job tonight.  The Conference organizers asked if I would come and discuss the issue of the North Korean threat.  In some ways, this is easy.  It has after all been a high priority for the Intelligence Community for years, and you have been discussing aspects of it all day long.  In another sense, though, it is a challenging assignment, because so many of the factors that defined the classic threat are changing—and changing in a region that is not just very fluid but which also must find its place in a world vastly different from the one that gave birth to the North Korean regime.

What perspective do I bring to this?  Like so many of you, I have been to Korea, I have been to the DMZ, and I have had to think about the problem a lot.  But to be fair, I would not call myself an expert in the class of so many in this room.  The perspective I bring is that of an intelligence officer whose personal career has centered more on assessing change in areas such as the former Soviet Union and Central Europe—areas where totalitarian regimes experienced transformation in dramatically different circumstances.  I also bring the perspective of an intelligence officer charged with gauging the relative weight of various challenges and opportunities for US interests across the globe.  By any standard, events on the Korean peninsula must rank high on that scale. 

The title of your Conference centers on a question:  engagement or confrontation?  We all know the second very well.  Confrontation has been a virtual constant in US relations with North Korea for more than half a century.  The far newer phenomenon is engagement—cautious, tentative, guarded, halting—apply the adjective of your choice.

Engagement or confrontation?  Ultimately, they describe policy options.  It is, of course, not the mission of US Intelligence to prescribe policy, and I would not presume to do so this evening.  But, on our best days, we do hope to inform policy.

That said, let me say explicitly that no one should comb through these remarks for clues about the future direction of US policy on Korea.  These are personal reflections on one of the most complex and significant issues of our time. 

When it comes to North Korea, conditions there clearly hold the potential for both engagement and confrontation.  For a state like the North—often reflexively hostile to the outside world, yet in need of it as never before—engagement and the potential for confrontation can coexist—and are likely to co-exist--even in the best of scenarios.

The Nature of the Challenge

What are the elements of the problem?  For the United States, North Korea is—first and foremost—a challenge.  It was throughout the Cold War, and it is so now.  In fact, it could be said that North Korea was a metaphor for some of the most extreme aspects of the Cold War and is today a metaphor for the most challenging aspects of the new world that has come in its wake.

Let’s look back for a moment and then talk about how the picture has changed.  As you all know, the armistice of July 1953 created on the Korean peninsula a long pattern of tense standoff, punctuated by occasional crisis.  For US Intelligence, North Korea became—as much as anything—an order-of-battle problem.  Count the troops.  Count the tanks.  Count the guns.  Add up the capabilities.  Estimate their intentions.  I know I’m making this sound easier and simpler than it was, but my point is that we were dealing with a much less fluid picture back then.

Like everyone else, we knew the regime was brutal within its borders and a menace beyond.  Its commando raids into South Korea and its assassination attempts against successive South Korean presidents—including the 1983 bombing in Rangoon that killed 21 people—were clear windows into the minds and morals of North Korean leaders.

And yet, North Korea’s status as a client of the Soviet Union and China – a prickly client, to be sure -- did impose constraints on its behavior.  With the end of the Cold War and the scaling back of the subsidies that went with it, those constraints began to erode.  Today, it may be a fragile regime, but it is one that operates with fewer constraints on its behavior and often outside international norms.  And, as I implied earlier, it operates in a world where the reference points—technological, geopolitical, economic, military—are themselves in flux.

In short order, the challenge that North Korea poses to us and our allies has grown in complexity and peril.  Its traditional feature—the conventional threat we examined this afternoon—remains in place.  And—as we saw in September, 1996 and June, 1999—the North has found it hard to abandon tactics like commando incursions and naval confrontations—even when they fail miserably.

But added into this mix is an increased threat from weapons of mass destruction and the humanitarian challenge we could face, given the increased stress that poverty and economic decline must be creating in the North.

The Conventional Threat…

Let’s talk for a minute about the conventional military picture.  I reveal no secret when I say that on the battlefield North Korea cannot defeat the South and the United States.  But it could inflict tremendous damage in a losing cause.

The North Korean military, like all but the most elite of North Korean society, has suffered the effects of the country’s economic implosion.  It does not exercise often or well.  Its equipment is aging.  Its military production is scant.  But it is large, and most of it is forward deployed.

Its artillery could rain havoc down on Seoul, a mere 30 miles from the DMZ.  It has the biggest pool of special forces in the world—not the best, as we have seen, but with enough punch to sow panic and destruction.

These are capabilities.  The intention to use them is a very different matter, and this has been debated thoroughly for years.  The case can be made that it would be foolish for the North to use these capabilities.  And the case can be made that it would be foolish to make that assumption.  But, the bottom line is that like any military commander, we in the intelligence profession can ill-afford to ignore capabilities.

In fact, I can tell you that we tend to make our mistakes not when we convince ourselves that a foreign group or leader might do something, but when we convince ourselves that they will not

Here is a short passage from one of our intelligence assessments: “…an invasion of South Korea is unlikely unless North Korean forces can develop a clear-cut superiority over the increasingly efficient South Korean army.”  That judgment came out on the 13th of January—1950.  It had a fairly short shelf life.

No matter what we think the North Korean leadership might do with its military, it is a linchpin of their state.  They take it very seriously.  And so must we—as the ally of South Korea and its democracy, and as a nation with 37,000 of its own troops serving, working, and living among forty-five million friends in what could one day be harm’s way.

That holds true whether we believe the North sees its armed forces as a mark of prestige, a constituency to be satisfied, a tool that might bring respect, or even one that might bring conquest.  The military has priority on whatever resources the North has.  This is stated policy, the so-called “military first” policy.  But it is hardly the whole story.

…and the Unconventional Ones

Were Kim Chong-il and his lieutenants simply sitting atop a large collection of conventional forces, they would still be a grave concern.  But it would be one whose destructive power and geographic reach the United States and South Korea have together understood and managed for decades.

As real as the conventional threat may be, North Korea’s challenge to regional and global security is magnified by two other factors I’ve already mentioned.

First, the North’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles, and its readiness—even eagerness—to become missile salesman to the world.  And second, the economic and humanitarian disaster that has afflicted the people of the North—a catastrophe whose effects will endure for generations, no matter how the Korean situation finally plays out.

Weapons of Terror

Looking first at those advanced weapons:  as we all know, it was not a brigade of tanks or division of infantry that riveted our attention and concern on the Korean peninsula early in the last decade.  It was the nuclear plant at Yongbyon. 

The Agreed Framework has frozen activity there.  But we still cannot account for all of North Korea’s plutonium.  And—with an opaque regime in which the practice of denial and deception is embedded in national strategy—we still cannot say for sure that nuclear weapons-related work is not going on somewhere else.

Indeed, the North probably has one or two nuclear bombs—and it may also have biological weapons alongside its chemical ones.

Regarding missiles, the outlines of the North’s program are far less mysterious, for the leadership sees the No Dong and Taepo Dong as tools of public diplomacy as well as national defense. 

It has so far held to its missile launch moratorium and it has signaled its interest in negotiating a missile deal with us.  At the same time, the North’s proliferation activities remain robust—for a profit and for a purpose: To keep our attention, to underline their greatest source of leverage, and to remind us of what it is they are willing to haggle over.  

North Korea continues to aggressively market its ballistic missiles, equipment, and technology.  We find the No Dong and its variants in places like Iran and Pakistan, where they have the potential to alter geopolitical and military calculations in important ways throughout the Middle East and South Asia. 

In short, the North has accelerated the pace at which other countries acquire and refine potential delivery systems for weapons of mass destruction.

The flight of a Taepo Dong over Japan more than two years ago added a new and worrisome dimension to the North’s own definitions of deterrence and power projection.  And it is busy at work on new models that could reach the United States itself with nuclear-sized payloads.

The Humanitarian Challenge

Turning to the second factor I mentioned:  even as the North challenges the world in one small but lethal field of modern technology, it presents another challenge as old as life itself: malnutrition and starvation.

A combination of natural calamity and human mismanagement may have claimed up to a million lives in the 1990s.  Even today, the North’s sputtering economy remains unable to provide remotely sufficient food or work for its people. 

Even with the charity of other nations, malnutrition is widespread.  Without this charity, famine would be epidemic.  Many North Koreans must simply fend for themselves, seemingly forgotten by a system that nonetheless demands their obedience.  Some just flee.

As for the others, their dire poverty is captured in a single picture—one that I am sure many of you in this room have seen.  It is a satellite photo of the Korean peninsula at night.  North China and South Korea are a blaze of lights.  North Korea is totally dark outside the single dot that is Pyongyang.  The fishing fleets in the Sea of Japan give off far more light than does all of North Korea.

No one who looks at that photograph should forget that there are some 23 million human beings struggling in that darkness.

North Korea’s Leadership: Tactical Flexibility…

And what of the small group in that dot of light, the small group that commands North Korea.  It was rich ground for analysis this morning. 

And we, too, see changes—some encouraging, some not.

No matter what you make of Kim Chong-il’s diplomatic opening, it does at least reflect a tactical flexibility.  His words and actions are well worth weighing and watching.  We have all seen the signposts.

His behavior at the North-South summit.  His dispatch of Vice Marshal Cho to Washington and his reception of American diplomats in Pyongyang.  His acceptance of foreign aid and foreign aid workers.  His efforts to attract foreign money to his investment enclaves.  His small adjustments to the domestic economy.

But the key is whether any of these steps signal the start of a process.  For in and of themselves, they have yet to bring real improvement to the North.  Yet they do suggest the leadership there knows it must do something to better conditions in the country—for its own survival, if nothing else.

Kim’s trips to China in January of this year and May of last year are also significant.  But so is the fact that China’s economic reform was made possible in large part by the passing of Mao and the de-emphasis of major portions of his legacy.  In North Korea, we have yet to see any comparable movement away from the legacy of Kim Il-song and all that it represents.  Real change will not come until that happens.

…Risky Strategy

So far in Pyongyang, the son has held fast to the father’s legacy, including the goal of Northern preeminence in a reunified Korea.

It is easy to caricature Kim Chong-il—either as a simple tyrant blind to his dilemma or as a technocratic champion of sweeping change.  But the extreme views of him tend to be the product of bias, ignorance, or wishful thinking.  The reality is more complex.

At home, he has shown his hard side—through his purges of the elite, his light regard for the suffering of ordinary Koreans, and the swift destruction of any expression of popular discontent.  Abroad, he has shown his pragmatic side—through his willingness to engage old enemies and his skilled brinkmanship as he does so.

Like his father, he has been shrewd enough to make bad behavior the keystone of his foreign policy.  He knows that proliferation is something we want to stop.  Thus, Kim Chong-il has tried to drum up outside assistance by trading off international concerns about his missile programs and sales.  He has—more subtly, of course—done much the same thing with foreign fears of renewed famine and the chaos that could accompany any unraveling of his regime.

These are the wild cards he adds to strengthen what would otherwise be a deuce-high hand.  This is his leverage with the world.  Along the way, he will seek to exploit any daylight he can find between the United States, South Korea, Japan, the European Union, or anyone else who might be inclined to offer him economic help.  And from his perspective, it makes good sense.

Decisive to the success of this strategy is the projection of a credible threat.  And here—as we know—the North has its bases covered.  But, like any policy founded on threats, it comes with the built-in possibility of accident or miscalculation—by those who conduct it, or by those who react to it.

The Nature of the Regime

Before I can say anything about the future of the North Korean regime—and its challenge—a few words are in order about what makes it tick today.

It is a peculiar creation.  The leaden, bureaucratic Marxism we saw falter in the late 20th Century—with its gray Central Committees and half-forgotten Central European ideology—is an imperfect guide to North Korea and offers few reliable analogies for how the North Korean regime might some day experience transformation.

The transformation of the Central European countries at the beginning of the last decade was eased by at least three things not present in the North Korean equation:  extensive exposure to and penetration by the outside world (East Germany is the best example); economies already on the road to privatization (Hungary was the extreme case); and the presence of dissident movements powerful enough in a country like Poland to represent an effective parallel society.

Instead of these cushioning factors, in North Korea, the command economy, central planning, and other familiar features introduced there long ago by the Soviets exist alongside something else.  A single story makes the point.  A foreign visitor asked a North Korean what he thought of Kim Il-song.  “He is God,” came the answer.  Then a tougher one.  “What do you think of Kim Chong-il?”  The Korean thought a moment, looked around, and replied: “He is 70 percent God.”

Those answers might be very different were the North Korean outside the country.  But they do say something about the tone and tenor of the regime on the inside.

Now I’m sure there are subtleties and complexities about the regime that we can neither discern nor appreciate.  But that aside, the key is that power continues to reside with Kim Chong-il and the cluster of relatives and allies who run the military, the security forces, and the rest of the state and party apparatus.

No matter how you view them, it is evident they rule a state that is simultaneously impoverished and addicted to living beyond its means.  They preach the values of self-reliance, but they rely on foreign aid.  The priorities they set and enforce have delivered a huge army, a broken economy, widespread hunger, and a challenge for all of us.

…and Its Future

Because totalitarian elites tend to mask their own policy deliberations and drive opposition underground, the health and stability of their regimes are notoriously difficult for outsiders to gauge.  North Korea is no exception.  Predictions of its collapse have come and gone, and I will not venture one here now.

But I will say the North faces tough choices.  Kim Chong-il probably recognizes the obvious truth that the economic competition with the South is lost.  And he has seen for himself the economic gains brought by reform in China.

Yet he also knows the security risks involved and he knows the fates of other leaders who fell victim to change they could not control.  He may have seen images of Gorbachev in retirement.  Of Honecker in exile.  Of a startled Ceausescu on his palace balcony the day the crowd stopped cheering.

At this point, Kim Chong-il may have a toe in the river of change.  And he is moving just as we would expect him to: Slowly, carefully, with plenty of room to bargain, maneuver, or pull back.

After a decade of deprivation, the real story may be the durability of the North—a grim testament to the power of a people’s ability to endure hardship.

Clearly, the North is under serious stress and it is likely to remain so.  But frankly, no one can be confident about when, how, or even whether that stress might achieve critical mass and lead to fracture.

That formulation may not be intellectually satisfying.  But I hope you will agree that it is intellectually honest. 

The Regional Context

As the situation in the North unfolds, there is a final element of change we must consider: The regional context, which—like so many other things we have talked about today—was reshaped by the close of the Cold War.

Russia and China are each redefining their power, their influence, and their reach, and their relationship with each other.  Japan is focused on ending its long economic recession and has heightened security concerns in the aftermath of Pyongyang’s missile tests.  And South Korea has emerged as a vibrant society with a strong democracy and the world’s twelfth largest economy—a stark contrast to the stagnation in North Korea, whose economy barely registers on the charts.

And East Asia as a whole is looking anew at the United States, now the only global superpower.  In that capacity, we are still often called on to be partner, protector, or honest broker.  But we are also seen as a nation whose interests and priorities do not always coincide with the other major actors in the region.

It is in this fluid environment that the United States must work the problem of North Korea.  We find in the immediate neighborhood friends and allies like South Korea and Japan, and others, like Russia and China, whose interests may converge less frequently with ours but who nonetheless share with us a common, significant stake in the ultimate destiny of North Korea.  No one will benefit from prolonged instability.  There and the cost of reconstruction—whenever the time comes to tally it up—will demand the resources of more than one country.

If we ever face a crisis in the North, its solution will fall to the nations of East Asia and the United States.  We will together have the chance to resolve it in concert, not conflict.  It is a chance none of us can afford to miss.


Intelligence officers like to say that change typically brings uncertainty, and that uncertainty raises the odds of surprise.  With so much change in and around the Korean peninsula, that old truth certainly applies.  But none of us should be surprised by the prominence of North Korea as a challenge for policymakers and intelligence analysts. 

In a very real sense, it is one of the inevitable issues of American foreign policy.  Inevitable because—no matter what level of engagement we may want—the North seems sure to engage us.  It could be across a table.  It could be with the consequences of its negative behavior or its own instability.  Or it could be some combination of them all.

What is clear—as this Conference demonstrates—is the complexity, gravity, and importance of the North Korean issue and its very certain role as a signpost for the future of East Asia.

Thank you very much.