Monday, April 15, 2013

Why North Korea should be taken seriously

I love Bill Maher, but his recent jokes about the North Korean threat may one day seem horrifying.

Like many others, he seems to take his cue from Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists, who told journalists that he has seen no evidence that the North Koreans had developed a missile capable of surviving re-entry into the atmosphere. But now we learn that our intelligence community had access to a source of information unavailable to Ferguson -- the recovered front section of a rocket used to send an NK satellite into space.
The same basic engineering and science needed to launch a satellite into space is also used in the multi-stage rockets known as inter-continental ballistic missiles. The front of the satellite rocket, according to three U.S. officials who work closely on North Korean proliferation, gave tangible proof that North Korea was building the missile’s cone at dimensions for a nuclear warhead, durable enough to be placed on a long-range missile that could re-enter the earth’s atmosphere from space.

“Having access to the missile front was a critical insight we had not had before,” one U.S. non-proliferation official told The Daily Beast. “I have seen a lot of drawings, but we had not seen the piece of that missile at that time.” This official continued: “we looked at the wreckage from the launch and we put it together with other kinds of intelligence and came to this judgment that they had figured out the warhead piece.”
Some readers will probably try to convince me that these words do not mean what they plainly mean. But why else would John Kerry now be seeking negotiations with Krazy Kim?
A comment on the big North Korean story of the moment in the UK, namely that the BBC was spying on North Korea using a visit by a group of students from the London School of Economics as cover...

First, let there be no confusion here: the BBC activity certainly amounted to spying. MI6 was certainly involved.

My comment is: so what else is new? In British student group visits to the 'friendliest' of countries, there is usually at least one group member who knows to contact MI6 when necessary. In visits to most other countries, i.e. to most of the countries in the world, there is actual espionage going on. In 'unfriendly' countries, this can often involve giving secret communications to 'friends of Britain' or receiving communications from such people. And I am talking about this being done by real students, not fake ones.

A student already on the path to a job in 'foreign affairs' might perhaps swap messages with a Brit who's already living in the country. Sometimes the messages will contain something substantive; sometimes it's only about training. The same 'tradecraft' is used. Or a student who isn't on that path, but who's considered 'loyal', might be met with by a 'friend' of someone they know, shortly before the visit, and asked to deliver or collect a communication, without bothering any official postal service. Of course the person's 'loyalty' has already been assessed. Being in the right social caste helps.

A group of 10 British students visit North Korea, and no espionage goes on? That's what would be amazingly unusual, if it has ever occurred!

In the current case, apparently (and this is from the BBC itself) each student was 'briefed' individually by the undercover journalist's wife, or by a cameraman. The strong implication is that this briefing occurred only once they were already in Pyongyang. And this wife "helped organise the trip". It seems that the whole trip was fake, was cover for the British espionage operation.

So I am saying that some of the students in the group would have been 'not unknowledgeable about intelligence matters', and fully in the know that MI6 was up to something fairly sizeable. The others would have suspected. Maybe one or two would have been doltish enough not to suss, but I doubt it.

Clearly MI6 misjudged the 'loyalty' (i.e. readiness to keep their mouth shut) of at least one student in the group. Oh fucking dear.

It is quite possible that this is going to turn into a bigger business - perhaps even a much bigger business - than just a little spat resulting in a few British passport holders not being allowed into North Korea again.

For starters, what was the actual aim of the operation?

Note to MI6: maybe next time make an assessment of how members of the group handle alcohol, eh?

From that Daily Mail article I just linked to: "The student, whose parents have made a formal complaint, said she had believed she was going on a university-organised trip via the Grimshaw Club, a student society linked to the LSE’s department of international relations. The club has denied any part in the BBC deception. Students were told Mr Sweeney’s wife Tomiko, an LSE graduate, was organising the tour, but were not warned of her links to Panorama or Mr Sweeney until they were in Beijing."

And "Three students have complained about their involvement. Mr Sweeney claimed he had the support of the majority of the group."

Ha ha! British intelligence isn't half making itself look fucking stupid!
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