WASHINGTON -- Although the U.S. government believes North Korea has nuclear weapons, major gaps remain in America's understanding of the threat that nuclear program might pose, security and intelligence specialists said yesterday.
The uncertainty swirling around North Korea's weapons test served as a case in point. Intelligence officials know the North Koreans are trying to establish their country as a nuclear power, but they aren't sure how close they are to achieving that status.
Major intelligence gaps remain. Assuming North Korea does have nuclear weapons, are they any good? How many do they have? What does North Korean leader Kim Jong Il intend to do with them?
Last week, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee issued a grave warning that "significant information gaps" have left policymakers and intelligence analysts without "critical information" to make judgments about North Korea.
For almost half a century, North Korea has been one of the most difficult intelligence targets to penetrate. U.S. officials glean much of what they know from what they are able to observe using technology, such as satellite photographs, and from occasional defectors.
"North Korea is a very opaque society. They have spent 50-plus years making sure that they control information," said Michael Green, a former top White House security adviser on Asia. "So, the intelligence is pretty weak compared to most parts of the world."
Without a U.S. embassy or other presence in the country, there is little opportunity to recruit spies, said Gary Samore, a non-proliferation specialist at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration. "They're very good at hiding things underground," he added.
The weapons test is unlikely to shed much light, said Jeffrey Lewis, who runs Harvard's Managing the Atom Project.
"It looks like this test was a failure," he said, "but we don't really have a way of knowing that, let alone why that would happen."
Intelligence officials could not confirm whether the test's explosion was nuclear. They said that the impact appeared to be much smaller than what a nuclear weapon has historically produced.
But intelligence officers, chastened by the sweeping and wrong judgments on Iraq, have been hesitant to make definitive statements about North Korea, particularly since there is much they still do not know.
Earlier this year, the director of national intelligence, John D. Negroponte, appointed his first intelligence chief for North Korea. But Negroponte hedged recently when asked about the North Korean threat.
"North Korea [does] have nuclear weapons," he said, adding that "it's an assessment. We don't know it with absolute certainty."
Intelligence officials believe they have successfully gauged the amount of nuclear material North Korea has amassed - to some degree based on international inspections in the 1990s - and they have measured the specifications of its missile capabilities, said Lewis.
One significant unknown, however, is what North Korea has done with a secret uranium enrichment program it established to get around a Clinton-era agreement to stop plutonium production.
"We have had very poor intelligence on its secret enrichment program or how far they have gone in weaponization and their ability to produce a deliverable nuclear device," said Samore, now at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Getting inside Kim's head has been the toughest challenge, said Green, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"What is very hard to crack is the inner circle around Kim Jong Il," he said. "Nobody knows for certain what his intentions are."
There have been some smaller opportunities for bolstering U.S. spy power in the region, he said, because the border between North Korea and China has become more porous, offering opportunities to recruit defectors.
Without better intelligence, said Green, U.S. policymakers have a difficult time calling Kim's bluff, which allows him to intimidate his neighbors and makes negotiations difficult.
If tensions were to escalate, said Samore, the United States would have a hard time assessing how far to go - not knowing North Korea's capabilities.
Both Green and Samore said Kim would probably stop short of transferring nuclear material to a terrorist group, because it would likely be traced back to him, and he'd pay a high price.
"It's a remote scenario," Green said, "but it's a very frightening one."