One of the world's great mysteries is the inner workings of the government in North Korea. "There is a debate at the State Department over whether they are evil geniuses or whether they are uncoordinated and don't know what they're doing," said a State Department official recently.
That would make an interesting academic question if the administration weren't worried that North Korea is about to test a missile capable of hitting the United States. As it is, people at the State Department along with experts at the Pentagon, National Security Council and intelligence agencies are trying to figure out what it would take to pry open the secretive country and defuse one of the world's nuclear weapons threats.
Recent visits by U.S. officials to North Korea haven't done much to clear things up.
U.S. officials from various agencies who joined special presidential envoy and former defense secretary William Perry on his recent visit to Pyongyang to engage with North Korean leaders found a city strangely lacking in people who were old, wore eyeglasses or carried the small shopping nets common in Asia. The huge boulevards with balletic traffic controllers were virtually devoid of traffic--except for official Mercedes sedans.
Such descriptions are reminiscent of those of travelers to China during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. Because Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong remained respected and the country was so opaque, most visitors were oblivious to the ugly side of a campaign that threw China into turmoil. With the benefit of hindsight about the Cultural Revolution, visitors to the North Korean capital Pyongyang just assume that people die young and can't afford glasses, much less cars.
Symbolic of the bizarre nature of North Korea, and the dilemma that it poses for policy-makers, was the recent fuss over the vast Kumchangri tunnel complex that U.S. intelligence suspected was being built to reprocess or enrich material for making a nuclear bomb. The site is near two dams that could be used to supply energy and cooling water for such a purpose. When word of the site leaked out, members of Congress called angrily for a suspension in the food and fuel aid for the hunger-racked North Korea.
The 14-member U.S. inspection team that was ultimately allowed to visit in late May was forced to walk past a line of barking German shepherds before entering the site. Intimidation? But then they were free to walk through the six miles of empty tunnels, taking photos and videos. The tunnels were in a grid pattern: four running north to south and 17 running east to west. The east-west chambers were about 40 feet wide and about 20 feet high. The walls were unfinished and there was no equipment.
Was the site an elaborate decoy? Not likely, said one U.S. official. It took thousands of North Koreans about a decade to build it. An underground shelter? Also unlikely; there were no signs of amenities. Could it be adapted for nuclear energy material reprocessing? It would need drainage; otherwise radioactive material would spread throughout the facility.
"We don't know what it's supposed to be," said one U.S. official.
One administration official said the access to the tunnels at least showed that the North Korean foreign ministry or someone more senior could force the military to open up a facility.
But a key aide for a Democratic senator called the Kumchangri mystery an example of a "colossal intelligence failure" and wondered: "How are we to proceed with any confidence about North Korea?"
To that, a State Department official said that "for most of our questions, we won't have answers. . . . Can we tolerate uncertainties?" One expert advising the Clinton administration said, "People will disagree. Who understands Pyongyang? We don't make any assumptions about that. It's a lousy situation fundamentally."
As Kurt Campbell, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia, said, "Ultimately you cannot know what the North Koreans are thinking. The important thing is to know your own interests and your own objectives."
NO BULL: An intrepid reporter asked State Department spokesman James Foley if State had any advice for Americans who want to run with the bulls in the famous festival in Pamplona, Spain, which started yesterday.
"I do happen to have bull guidance today," Foley said. "What I can tell you is that given today's security environment, no American can be safe from raging bulls."
He added "some common-sense precautions," such as making "sure your sneakers are tied, your valuables are safely stowed in your neck pouch and your medical insurance is thoroughly up to date . . . and that's no bull."
CAPTION: No American is safe from raging bulls, State Department says of the festival in Pamplona, Spain.