A Look At How Spies Might Use The U.S.-North Korea Summit In Singapore To Gather Intel

Jun 8, 2018
Originally published on June 8, 2018 4:50 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And let's pause now to consider quite how many spies might be crawling the streets of Singapore tonight. Singapore, of course, is the setting for next week's summit between President Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong Un. And even as the rituals of diplomacy unfold in public view - photo ops, press briefings, et cetera - there will also be plenty of action in the shadows.

For the CIA and other intelligence services, this summit marks a rare opportunity. The North Korean delegation offers a prime target for spies, and Singapore offers a prime location to operate, certainly compared to inside North Korea. Well, let's put all this to Bruce Klingner. He was the CIA's deputy - division chief for Korea. Welcome to the show.

BRUCE KLINGNER: Well, thank you for having me.

KELLY: How big a bonanza is this summit for intelligence officers trying to work the North Korea target?

KLINGNER: Well, the intelligence community has several lanes on the road when it comes to analysis - political, military, economic and leadership. Up until this year, really, the American with the most face time with Kim Jong Un had been Dennis Rodman.

KELLY: (Laughter) Right.

KLINGNER: So CIA will try to glean as much information on particularly leaders such as Kim Jong Un from any number of sources. They'll - to try to get a sense of how people make decisions, how they might react.

KELLY: This is looking at what, everything from how Kim Jong Un seems to conduct himself, who he talks to, who's is in his inner circle, does he look healthy - is it those type of questions?

KLINGNER: Exactly. On health because he certainly looks unhealthy, and he's had gout and limping and others. People will be looking at his physical appearance. Are there any clues from his mannerisms or the way he looks, the way he acts, the way he talks, indicating any kind of medical issues? Or, you know, how much alcohol does he drink? Or then just on his intellect, does he need to look at notes, or is he well-versed on a number of issues? Does he turn to aides often to get information, or does he know it all off the top of his head? Does he seem to turn to others to get their approval or their consensus, or is he clearly the one in charge?

Even how the others in his entourage act - do they act nervous around him? Are they afraid of making a mistake, or do they sort of chime in with suggestions? Any of those kind of things would be items that not only an intelligence officer, but really the diplomats would be looking for.

KELLY: Right. Because all of which might inform U.S. intelligence analysis of how firm his grip on power is, what his motives and ambitions may be, which would then inform U.S. policymakers going forward.

KLINGNER: Exactly. And if the president raises a proposal, would Kim Jong Un say, well, that's a good idea, we'll take it back to Pyongyang and discuss it? Or does he immediately make a decision without looking at even any of those in his entourage?

KELLY: What about just the opportunity presented by the fact that he and his senior aides will be in Singapore, a place where Western intelligence services can operate with relative impunity?

KLINGNER: Right. Well, you're not going to have any CIA spies breaking into his room and planting bugs. But intelligence agencies can do things remotely with electronics. I'm sure there's going to be any number of, you know, microphones or satellite dishes or whatever aimed at his hotel area. But the North Koreans would know that, and they would probably be trying to take countermeasures.

KELLY: How does that work?

KLINGNER: Well, we don't really know the - their capabilities on countermeasures. But people tend to think of North Korea as very inept technologically. They often look at the nighttime satellite photos, where North Korea can't even seem to keep lightbulbs going on except in Pyongyang.

KELLY: We know they have good cyber capabilities.

KLINGNER: Exactly. They're within the top five, perhaps top three countries of the world with cyberattack capabilities. So whether they're going to try to clip into President Trump's communications or not - but certainly the U.S. will have soundproof or cyber-protected booths for the president to do any kind of communications. And we've even seen photos that the Obama White House released of them in a protected room that they set up within a hotel room.

KELLY: Bruce Klingner. He spent 20 years at the CIA and at the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency. He's now a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation. Thanks very much.

KLINGNER: Well, thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.