First came reports last month that North Korea was upgrading nuclear and missile facilities and increasing production of fuel for nuclear bombs at secret sites. Then came a report this week in The Washington Post that the North is building new long-range missiles and exploring ways to hide the extent of its nuclear-weapons program from the United States.
What does all this add up to? Is Kim Jong Un serious about his commitment at the June Singapore summit to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula”? Is he instead out to trick the United States into making concessions for little in return? Or are the reports, which are based on U.S. intelligence assessments and commercial-satellite imagery, proof of nothing much beyond standard operating procedure for a country engaged in early negotiations on an arms-control agreement?
The truth is that the same evidence can lead to opposite conclusions depending on who is evaluating it. This is often true of intelligence, which tends to come in scraps that require a considerable amount of analysis and inference to tell any particular story—a story, moreover, that can change dramatically with even small variations in starting assumptions. Yet it’s perhaps especially true in the case of intelligence related to North Korea’s nuclear program, since the intentions and activities of the nation’s leaders are uniquely opaque, and talks with the United States are at such a preliminary stage. The Singapore summit has left a trail of tea leaves, and there are multiple ways to read them.