“….their inability to foresee the North’s rapid strides over the past several months now ranks among America’s most significant failures,” that is how a New York Times report sums up the feeling. The Times report is based on assessment and interviews of former and current US officials.

The hard-hitting report says when Donald Trump began his presidency last year, he was told by the US intelligence community that a North Korean Inter-continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the US mainland with a nuclear warhead was at least four years away, maybe six, by 2020 or 2022. They made similar assessment about North Korea’s efforts to detonate a hydrogen bomb that they calculated was years away.

Only that they happened within months, shocking the US intelligence community and the whole world.

On 4th July last year, the US Independence Day, North Korea test launched its first ICBM with a range of over 4000 miles, and the feat was surprising successful, as analysed by experts and intelligence community the world over. The US military base at Guam in the Western Pacific was now within the striking range of a North Korean missile.

On 28th July, it test fired another ICBM with a range of around 7000 miles and the US West Coast including cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle came into the North Korean striking range.

And on 28th November, it launched its most advanced and longest range ICBM yet, with a range of over 8000 miles, capable enough of hitting Washington and whole America.

As if these missile launches were not enough, to compound the humiliation of the US intelligence community, North Korea detonated its sixth and most powerful nuclear bomb, in fact a hydrogen bomb, on 3rd September last year. It was again surprisingly successful with analysts assessing that it was 15 times more powerful than the Hiroshima atom bomb.

In fact, the pace at which North Korea has achieved technological breakthroughs and military advances in 2017 has astonished the world. The country has now declared itself a nuclear power and openly resorts to nuclear blackmail to take on international sanctions being imposed on it for its continued missile and nuclear programme.


The US intelligence estimates about North Korean missile and nuclear programme were based on their past experiences of handling the country.

In April 2012, when Kim Jong-Un, the newly elevated North Korean dictator, tried to show the world his country’s prowess in ICBM technology with a satellite launch, the result was a disaster as the rocket exploded soon after its launch.

Though the rogue country continued with its missile and nuclear programme, failures piled up. In 2016, seven of the eight of North Korean Intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) test launches failed, the Times report says. The failures, fuelled by elaborate sabotage programmes run by the US government, made its intelligence officials go with their assessment that the North was still few years away from achieving any breakthrough in its military aspirations.

But they failed to gauge the elaborate counter move by North Korea.

The success of North Korea’s missile and nuclear programme in 2017 proves Kim Jong-Un was running parallel missile programmes, may be to experiment more to plug the lapses of recurring failures in the existing technology his country was using or may be simply to dodge the global intelligence spying on the country. He also increased efforts manifold to build missile parts and fuel indigenously to take on international sanctions and sabotage efforts.

The successful test launches of 2017 are driven by a new missile technology based on an old Soviet design that is more reliable and potent, the Times says. What he did that stunned the world was the speed with which his country mastered the new missile technology as it is believed that North Korea abandoned its old missile technology and started working on the new one just a 14 months ago, in October 2016.


It is not the first time that the US administration was caught off guard by intel failure on North Korea. In 2006, when North Korea had conducted its first nuclear test, the US could come to know only an hour before the test, and that too, when China informed about it.

In 2007, Israel destroyed a nuclear reactor in Syria which was being built by North Korea. America was surprised when Israel showed the photograph of the under construction reactor similar to North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear reactor. Israel found the structure was a plutonium nuclear reactor and photographed many North Korean scientists and workers there.

In 2010, when North Korea successfully finished building uranium enrichment plant in its Yongbyon nuclear complex, the US was again surprised as the said nuclear complex was under constant satellite surveillance.

And, as the world knows now, 2017 has eclipsed all those failures, when we talk about the scale of US intelligence blunders on North Korea.



The article originally appeared on India Today on 12 December.

“Microbes by ton”, that is how a Washington Post story describes the bioweapons threat from North Korea, the rogue regime that has recently acquired Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) and has declared itself a nuclear power after claimed detonation of a hydrogen bomb.

But if the assessments of US and Asian intelligence officials are true, as the Washington Post and other stories on the subject in the global media quote, then a whole new chapter in North Korean threat to the world is about to begin, in extension of its regular warnings of launching nuclear attacks.

“North Korea is moving steadily to acquire the essential machinery that could potentially be used for an advanced bioweapons program, from factories that can produce microbes by the ton, to laboratories specializing in genetic modification,” the Post story writes.

There have long been speculation about North Korea developing weapons of biological warfare, after the country established in 1980s a biological weapons programme under Kim Il-Sung, current dictator Kim Jong-un’s father, but it never went beyond pathogens like smallpox and anthrax and even now there is no hard evidence to prove it.

But the way North Korea is moving these days, sending its scientists abroad to study advanced microbiology and acquiring machinery that can be used to produce biological weapons at large scale, analysts says “North Korea could quickly surge into industrial-scale production of biological pathogens if it chooses to do so.”

And the most horrible part of it, the intelligence agencies spying on North Korea may not find if North Korea actually has started producing biological weapons at military scale as they suspect North Korea is using civilian factories to conceal its programme. “If it started tomorrow we might not know it, unless we’re lucky enough to have an informant who happens to be in just the right place,” the Post story writes quoting an official.

Experts say genetic engineering to produce even more virulent strains of microbes or germs is another scientific breakthrough that North Korea might have been trying. According to a study, North Korea’s Biological Weapons Program, released in October by Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, North Korean and Chinese scientists jointly published a research paper in 2016 on producing new species of bacteria through genetic engineering.

Though the research paper writes that it is “it is highly unlikely that the typing of these genomes will provide know-how for biological weapons development effort,” the Post story says it is evidence of North Korea’s ambition to acquire cutting edge genetic and microbiological sciences. The ambition raises a valid doubt that it may be used to create even more potent germs, especially when North Korea’s proven ability and credentials to carry out such advanced scientific research have been limited so far. Attempts to produce such super-germs is not new and met with mixed success during the cold war era.

An analysis by Amplyfi, an artificial intelligence company, on North Korean efforts to acquire advanced genetic and biotech capabilities, in fact, has shown that search on topics like “gene expression” and “nucleic acid sequence” from North Korea has gone up voluminously in the last two years.

The Post report writes quoting Amplyfi co-founder Chris Ganje “There are worrying indicators of unintended support and it is obvious that the international community and larger institutions need to be cautious in providing seemingly benign academic scientific education and training to North Korea,” as to circumvent international monitoring, North Korea is trying to gain technological insights from academic institutions, NGOs and private organizations.

South Korea has warned in past that it may launch biological attack thorough its special operations forces (SOF), a Rand Corporation paper, The Challenge of North Korean Biological Weapons, says.

The paper that details submission before the Subcommittee on Intelligence, Emerging Threats and Capabilities of the United States House of Representatives in October 2013 writes, “Indeed, North Korea special forces are a likely means for delivering North Korean biological weapons. North Korea has some 200,000 special forces, a small fraction of which could deliver devastating biological attacks against South Korea, Japan, and even the United States.”