I noted the other day how centrally James Clapper foregrounded his recent trip to North Korea in his discussion of the alleged North Korean hack of Sony. Now that the transcript is up, I see the trip was even more central in his discussion than reports had indicated. After noting that Jim Comey (whom he called “the senior expert on the investigative side of cybersecurity”) and Admiral Mike Rogers (whom he called “the senior expert on how cybersecurity ops actually happen”) would say more in following speeches, Clapper launched into a description of his trip, as if it were central to the discussion of the hack.
I’m not an expert on cyber. I guess that’s a way of saying I’m going to refer technical questions to the real experts here.
So, I was trying to think through what my contribution to this conference could possibly be. Well, I recently traveled to North Korea (and back, happily). So I thought I’d talk about that. [delayed laughter]
Yes, that’s a joke. [laughter] I learned from Father McShane that this crowd needs cuing. [laughter, applause]
I’ll talk about that and how it applies to this week’s conversation about cyber, given the Sony hack.
The first question I always get about the trip is: “Why you?” As in, “Why on earth would we send the DNI, the director of national intelligence, especially this DNI, on a diplomatic mission to get two American citizens who were imprisoned in North Korea?”
Why would they send me? The truth is, the mission had been in the works for quite a while.
I find it interesting that Clapper described such a lead-up to the meeting. At the time, it was much more closely tied to the October 21 release of Jeffrey Fowle (though that, too, could have been in the works for months).
North Korea wanted an active member of the National Security Council and a cabinet level official to come and to bring a letter from President Obama.
Note Clapper describes North Korea’s goal was that he “bring a letter” from President Obama. I find that notable given the reporting at the time about that letter — and Clapper’s unwillingness to read it during his press blitz about it.
The White House knows I’ve had a long history of working Korean issues, since I served as chief of intelligence for U.S. Forces in Korea in the mid-‘80s. So the White House put my name forward to the DPRK, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as they call themselves, government in Pyongyang. And I think we were all surprised, to include me, when they agreed. That’s how and why I was picked to go.
Actually, I thought the New York Times had a better explanation: Clapper is “Gruff, blunt-speaking and seen by many as a throwback to the Cold War.” [laughter]
“An unlikely diplomat, but perfect for the North Koreans.” [laughter]
Clapper is adopting the NYT’s description to pitch this as a Cold War, even though reporting at the time suggested relations with North Korea might be improving.
That’s the nicest thing the New York Times has ever written about me. [laughter, applause]
After that jokey beginning, Clapper took a long diversion to talk about how to prevent hacks and to provide some characterization of our adversaries online. Which brought him back to his discussion of the alleged North Korea hack, presented in contradistinction to what Clapper claimed was China’s objective — to break into networks to steal data that would allow it to surpass the US economically (which I don’t believe fully describes their motives or their actions).
That’s China’s primary motivation: to catch up to and then surpass Western industrial and defense capabilities and to eventually pass by the U.S. economy.
From there, Clapper claims, dubiously, that the Sony hack was the most damaging hack in the US, presenting it as stemming from an “entirely different philosophy” than he ascribes to China.
The Chinese are focused on those goals; whereas the recent cyber attack from North Korea, which by the way is the most serious cyber attack ever made against U.S. interests with potentially hundreds-of-millions of dollars and counting in damages, was driven by an entirely different philosophy.
He then launches into his own representation of North Korea as the quintessential totalitarian society, where people do mundane, labor-intensive jobs (which could be said about many countries) and where people “don’t show any emotion,” where they don’t even converse or laugh.
So, back to the weekend trip I took, which was exactly two months ago today. We flew into Pyongyang, the capital city, on Friday evening, the seventh of November. And the first thing that struck me was just how dark the city and airport were, just completely dark. We damaged a tire on the plane while taxiing in the dark, because of the poor construction of the taxiways and runways at Sunan airport.
Then, when I saw the city on Saturday, I was expecting to see drab clothes and lack of modern tools, people walking to get around, people sweeping and doing similar, mundane, labor-intensive jobs. And those expectations were met, from what I saw of Pyongyang. But I was also struck by how impassive everyone was. They didn’t show any emotion. They didn’t stop to greet each other, didn’t nod hello, and we didn’t see anyone conversing or laughing. They were just going about their business, going wherever they were going. It was almost automaton like. It was eerie.
This is James Clapper the dystopian novelist, depicting what he saw in less than 24 hours of being exposed to those whom North Korea permitted to be exposed to America’s top spy. Which Clapper then contrasts with the pleasure enjoyed by North Korea’s Generals (I’m curious how recently Clapper has considered how our menial labors’ public lives would contrast with top Generals’ festive dinners?).
And the plight of the citizens of Pyongyang stood in solemn contrast to the dinner I had the previous night, Friday the seventh, an elaborate 12-course Korean meal. Having spent time in Korea, I consider myself somewhat a connoisseur of Korean food, and that was one of the best Korean meals I’ve ever had. Unfortunately, the company was not pleasurable.