In fairness to IC analysts trying to make sense of what’s going on in the DPRK, most of their usual sources of information work poorly if at all when it comes to this hard target. We have no embassy in Pyongyang, which means the CIA’s usual practice of employing spies masquerading as diplomats to gain access to the host country’s secrets doesn’t apply. Neither do American firms do business in North Korea, so the CIA’s other option, of employing case officers under non-official cover—called NOCs in the spy trade—posing as businesspeople, doesn’t apply either.
Even if Americans somehow could get into North Korea, the 24/7 monitoring given to suspect foreigners in the country means they’d be hard-pressed to get any spying accomplished. Pyongyang, trusting no one, watches even its friends closely. A senior KGB official who did a tour in North Korea in the waning days of the Cold War admitted that he was under tighter surveillance by his “allies” in Pyongyang than he had experienced in his long espionage career. He told me that he was watched more invasively by North Korean counterspies than he ever had been by the FBI during a previous KGB tour in America.
Even the NSA, which supplies the lion’s share of intelligence in our IC, can’t get much access to North Korea. Pyongyang has buried most of its communications underground, making them immune to conventional interception, while cell phones are almost unknown there. Neither can NSA tap into the country’s computer networks easily, since North Korea barely has Internet access. Being all but sealed off from the world in IT terms means that the DPRK represents a very hard target for NSA, as well as a denied area overall for American spies.
Our spy satellites offer some indications of what’s going on north of the DMZ, but without corroborating HUMINT or SIGINT, that secret imagery is a lot less useful than it could be. The only way to get fresh intelligence about what’s happening in North Korea is by recruiting Pyongyang’s diplomats serving abroad (many of whom are really spies). They’re a pretty unsavory bunch, since DPRK embassies are outposts for crime—counterfeiting, drug-dealing, and various frauds—more than diplomacy, and any spies recruited will be impossible to maintain contact with once they return home.