Secrecy and Security: Sue Mi Terry on North Korea and Political Transparency

 /  May 19, 2019, 5:39 p.m.

sue mi terry

Dr. Sue Mi Terry is a Korea expert with a commendable history in government intelligence and political academia. She served as a CIA analyst from 2001 to 2008, writing contributions to the president’s daily brief, and later served as the director for Korea, Japan, and Oceanic Affairs in the National Security Council. She joined the Center for Strategic and International Studies in 2017 as a senior fellow for Korean policy. The Gate sat down with Dr. Terry to discuss government transparency, the North Korean regime, and the possibility of reunification in the Korean peninsula.

The Gate:  With Julian Assange’s recent arrest, there’s been a renewed attention on WikiLeaks—including on its role in leaking intelligence-related documents. Is WikiLeaks’ ability to gain access to these documents indicative of a major security flaw in the infrastructure of the intelligence community, or is this an anomaly? If there is a deficit, how might the infrastructure be updated?

Sue Mi Terry: I’m not sure it can really be fixed. But I do think this is a problem. Coming from the national security perspective, some leaks have led to the cost of direct human lives. The public is only aware that this is “cool stuff to read,” but it means, behind the scenes, people have been outed, people who have been working for the US government.  So, from my perspective, I understand the media and those who try to defend transparency, but it is highly problematic. I am honestly not sure how to solve that. 

These are secrets for a reason, not just because we want to keep it away from the public. A secret is often kept secret because of the sources. When we have top-security, Cold-War-style classification, it is for source protection. I think many don’t understand or have this awareness regarding why a document is classified. 

Gate: Speaking of people’s unawareness, one of the most secret nations in the world is North Korea. We get a lot of dual pictures, like it’s nationalistic, militaristic, there are happy citizens who mourned the death of Kim Jong Il. But, we see through Liberty in North Korea or secret photographers that this happy citizenship is not really the reality for a lot of people. How much, or rather how little, do we know about North Korea? 

SMT: North Korea is the hardest of hard targets. It’s pretty widely known that we don’t have a whole lot of info when it comes to North Korea. For example, when Kim Jong Il died, no one knew for forty-eight hours. It was only when North Korea told the world that the leader died that we knew. One of the really difficult things to know about North Korea is its intentions. Is Kim Jong Un really different from his father or grandfather? Is he really trying to transform his country? Who really knows? 

It’s not like we can send a bunch of CIA operatives to run around. It’s one of the most cultish, isolated places. People can’t travel out, we can’t go in freely. That said, it’s not like we don’t have any way to know. North Korea is heavily imaged, continually following the nuclear missile program. We have signal intelligence that works behind the scenes. We put in a lot of resources trying to understand North Korea. It’s very imperfect, but I will say that the CIA and US intelligence know a lot more about North Korea than other countries. We have technical advantages, to some extent.

Gate: President Moon Jae In and Kim Jong Un have held hands and crossed the border together. Some people think this is the way to peace, but this is also the guy who killed his half-brother. He’s like a “good man, brutal dictator.” What do you think Kim's true intentions are?

SMT: I think Kim did a brilliant makeover. The world has completely forgotten that this is the man who killed his uncle in the most brutal way and the man who assassinated his half-brother at a public airport. He purged over a hundred officials and generals. He did ruthless things—a brutal man. But we forget that, because now he’s smiling with President Moon, drinking, hopping into North Korea while holding hands and laughing… 

In terms of his intentions, I don’t think he’s different from his father or grandfather. He wants to eventually gain international acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear weapons power. I think what he wants is a Pakistan-India model. In terms of economic development, I don’t deny the fact that he wants to improve the basic economy to some extent. I do fundamentally question how much he can truly transform his economy, and what that will entail for North Korea and opening up. The citizens, as of now, don’t have Internet access. Will Kim open this up? Will he be the leader that risks systematic change? North Korea is a hereditary dynasty. Would he risk his own regime’s security in order to open up and transform his country? Is he a visionary? There is no evidence for anything. 

Gate: There are talks about possible reunification, and older generations want to see their families again on the other side. Do you think Kim’s regime would even survive such a reunification? 

SMT: To be realistic, if there is reunification, the only one that makes sense is South Korea-led absorption. Why would North Korea want that, though, when they will lose all their status? There are serious problems right now also because Kim has been named by the UN as the man who commits crimes against humanity. South Korea is the 12th largest economy; North Korea is 198th. South Korea is democratic, extremely. They ousted Park Geun Hye—she’s sitting in prison. North Korea will lose their status and privilege in German-style unification.

Gate: You spoke about the 12th versus 198th economic ranking. If reunification happens, there’s obviously going to be turmoil in the economy because of this difference in status. But, on the other hand, North Korea has important natural resources… 

SMT: There’s no question that reunification will be hugely costly. German reunification cost, what, nine trillion dollars? Every economist says Korea’s reunification will be so much more. We have never seen historically two sides that are so divided. They are so far apart. In every measure, Germany can hardly compare to what happened in Korea. 

That said, even though it’s really costly for the first decade or two, I think there is potential for the region to emerge as the Germany of Asia. You’re right—North Korea has natural resources. They just can’t take advantage of the natural resources. But South Korea has the technology to do so. North Korea has better demographics. South Korea has a problem with that because it is one of the fastest aging societies in the world, but has a low fertility rate. South Korea sends their men to mandatory military service. North Korea has one million men too. In a unified scenario, they don’t have to go to service. They can be released to the economy. In the long run, the reunification can be good for the two Koreas. And in the human rights perspective, this is a huge advantage. We are freeing twenty-three million people who live in a slave-like state. Yes, it will be costly economically, but I do have hope that reunification can occur. 

Gate: North Korea just issued a medical bill for Otto Warmbier, the American student who went comatose in prison. It seems like Kim and Trump have been flirting with the idea of negotiations. Do you think it is a good idea for Trump to go to Kim and talk, while Obama chose strategic patience? 

SMT: I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad idea to try to meet at the highest level. Trump wants to see if he can think of some sort of idea because everything else has failed in the last several decades. So, I understand that the issue is not that Trump is meeting with Kim. The issue is that he is not prepared. He went to Singapore, Hanoi, trying to wing it. He thinks pure charm will make Kim give up nuclear weapons. Obviously, that’s not going to happen. 

In terms of human rights and Otto, this is just so brazen. Even for North Korea, considering their standards. To produce a medical bill for costs when it was entirely their fault for detaining, potentially torturing, and killing Warmbier essentially? That’s just ridiculous.

Gate: There’s that two-sided effect that Kim gives off again.

SMT: Correct.

Note: The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Alina Kim


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