James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, listens to testimony during the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg)

North Korea's Nuclear Progress Led Kim to Talks, Clapper Says

(Bloomberg) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s decision to sit down with the U.S. was fueled by his regime’s view that it made significant achievements in its nuclear weapons program and would no longer be a “supplicant” in talks, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said.

Clapper said it may not matter whether North Korea actually has the technology to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead that can successfully hit a U.S. target. That’s less important to the regime than the psychological boost it received from demonstrating its prowess in testing ICBMs and more powerful nuclear bombs.

“They achieved what they think they need to achieve a deterrent,” Clapper, a Barack Obama appointee and frequent Trump critic, told Bloomberg reporters and editors in Washington on Monday. “It’s certainly not like what we would do in terms of testing and validating a weapons system.”

But, he added, “whatever it is, they now are confident enough so that they can go to the negotiating table and not show up as a supplicant, which has always been the case.”

Read a QuickTake on how Kim Jong Un and Trump differ on denuclearization

Clapper, who visited North Korea for talks while serving in the Obama administration, said he supports Trump’s decision to meet face-to-face with Kim in Singapore next week. Yet he called the summit a “huge concession” to the regime in its effort to seek legitimacy.

He said he argued during the Obama administration for the two nations to open offices known as “interest sections” in each others’ capitals to facilitate communication and address crisis situations. Such a channel proved useful in U.S.-Cuban ties without requiring each country to have formal diplomatic relations, he added.

The Singapore summit on June 12 will be the first time the leaders of the U.S. and North Korea have met, more than six decades after an armistice ending hostilities in the Korean war went into effect. While neither side has publicly defined what might be achieved at the historic summit, Clapper said progress toward a formal peace agreement would help ease tensions.

From their side of the border, North Korean officials and military chiefs still see “a very formidable, overwhelming conventional force in the form of the Republic of Korea Army bolstered by the United States, poised on a hair trigger and ready to invade to overthrow the regime,” Clapper said. “That’s the portrayal, their image.”

Limits on Bombers

But he also warned that the administration’s goal of “total denuclearization” could backfire on the U.S. if Pyongyang demands that definition include deployments or flights of bombers capable of carrying nuclear missiles. Agreeing to that would erode the “nuclear umbrella” the U.S. uses to help guarantee security for both South Korea and Japan, a move that would thrill North Korea’s allies in Beijing, he added.

“Denuclearization could apply two ways,” Clapper said. “Meaning, no B-1s, B-2, B-52s on the peninsula or within operational proximity to the peninsula.” It would be “very hard” for the U.S. to agree to give up that flexibility, Clapper said.

The nuclear missile threat from Pyongyang is growing, but it isn’t yet imminent, General Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in January.

North Korea has yet to demonstrate four essential capabilities, including an ability to maneuver in space, a guidance system and re-entry vehicle housing for a nuclear warhead, Selva said. Nor had North Korea yet demonstrated “targeting technologies,” Selva said before Kim’s regime froze its missile testing.

‘Really Acrimonious’

Clapper has the rare experience among top U.S. officials, along with current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, of having visited Pyongyang for a hostage negotiation.

Obama dispatched Clapper to the North Korean capital in late 2014 to secure the freedom of two American detainees. On that trip, Clapper met with Kim Yong Chol, the top regime aide who met with Trump in Washington last week. As part of his trip, Clapper said he told Kim Yong Chol that the U.S. sought denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and that the offer was rejected.

“The exchange I had with him was really, really acrimonious,” said Clapper, who had a more-than-five-decade career in the military and intelligence community. By the end of the trip, Clapper said his delegation was told that North Korea could no longer guarantee their safety in the country. They left later that day as soon as the two Americans were freed.

Trump’s Accusations

Clapper, whose “Facts and Fears: Hard Truths from a Life in Intelligence,” was published last month, helped write an intelligence community report in January 2017 saying Russia meddled in the presidential election in order to help Trump win. The report came out two weeks before Trump took office in January 2017. The president has singled out Clapper in recent months as a “liar.”

“Clapper is a lying machine who now works for Fake News CNN,” the president wrote on Twitter on April 28.

While he agreed with Trump’s decision on the Singapore summit, Clapper said the president’s decision to quit the Iran nuclear deal leaves it in a more difficult situation: dealing with a state sponsor of terrorism which could again pursue nuclear weapons. He said he backed the accord three years ago even though it had weaknesses including “sunset clauses” which would eventually allow Iran to restart uranium enrichment.

The U.S. has a “whole lot less leverage” over Iran now that it has left the nuclear accord, he said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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