November 10, 2014–If there is a senior U.S. official in need of some good PR–other than President Barack Obama, of course– that person would be General James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). So, unlike when Clapper denied under Senate questioning that hundreds of millions of citizens are being spied upon by the NSA, last week when the opportunity arose for a good photo op Clapper was right on the case. Even better, the occasion was a quintessential feel-good moment–when American citizens are being released from hard labor in a hostile land and Clapper can be seen to be rescuing them.
Kenneth Bae, held by the North Koreans for two years, has been in declining health, in and out of hospitals. The Koreans alleged he’d planned a “religious coup d’état”–a novel way to characterize Christian evangelical proselytizing. Matthew Todd Miller reportedly sought to defect. He entered North Korea this past spring, destroyed his visa, and reportedly sought asylum. The North Koreans prosecuted him instead–and sentenced Miller to hard labor for “unruly behavior.” Pyongyang’s release of the two Americans comes on top of another liberation last month. It’s an odd sort of charm offensive the Koreans are up to, but they have done it before. Lately the state of that nation–and even the status of its dictator, Kim Jong-un–have been uncertain, and Kim may need all the help he can get.
North Korea is an enigmatic nation. Its leaders have received basketball stars as potentates, politicians as government emissaries, and senior diplomats as the equivalent of heads of state. The seizure of foreign nationals as bargaining chips, and the presentation of visits from foreign officials as tokens of international esteem, seem to have become standard devices in Pyongyang’s tool box–as have missile tests and preparations for nuclear explosions.
But don’t ask the CIA! North Korea has been a “denied area” in the agency’s jargon, a place into which it is impossible to insert spies, recruit enemy agents, or obtain much information at all. At the moment the spooks have not even decided whether Mr. Kim is still alive, much less the status of his power in Pyongyang, or whether North Korea has a weaponized nuclear warhead for its latest-generation missiles.
The Obama White House portrayed General Clapper as having gone to listen to what the North Koreans would like to say to us. He is a senior enough official to satisfy Pyongyang that Washington is serious about dealing with them, and he can be depended upon to relay North Korea’s messages to Washington. If Clapper’s quick visit last weekend encouraged Kim Jong-un out of hiding, the CIA may even get an intelligence windfall out of this operation.
On the other hand, Fearful Leader Clapper can be expected to retail North Korean developments in the most alarming light possible. Back in mid-October, at a conference held at the University of Texas, Clapper was virtually taking a victory lap on the war on terror–underlining observations in this space previously about the extent to which the real terrorism threat has receded. But that means the DNI and CIA need a new threat to help fill their rice bowls. which can help shield U.S. intelligence budgets from the chopping block during the months ahead. And the photo-0p rescuing Americans from a despotic regime shows General Clapper in an active, positive role. I, for one, would be more comfortable with a DNI who was less political.