With White House staff endeavoring to walk back President Trump's bombast about "fire and fury like the world has never seen," characterizing the threat against North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as "improvised" and advising reporters not to "read too much into" it, North Korea's war of words is more precision science, each phrase vetted by committee, each word intentional. Last week, for example, the North followed its general threat to "evelope" Guam in fire with a starkly specific outline of how they'll do it, bracketing the island "through simultaneous fire of four Hwasong-12 intermediate range strategic ballistic rockets."
So are we, or aren't we, on the knife's edge of war?
Warscapes talked to one of the country's foremost intelligence analysts on reading North Korea (literally). John F. McCreary has studied North Korean syntax, phrasing and corresponding actions over more than five decades, serving as the senior intelligence officer in the Pentagon and, for more than a decade of his 42 years in government, director of National Warning Staff under the Office of the Director of the CIA. His job, ususally on the night watch while the US is asleep and Asia's just waking up, was discerning and interpreting strategic threats and communicating them to the President to prevent situations like the current one with North Korea from spinning out of control. Now out of government, he continues to write an overnight analysis, called Nightwatch, clarifying fast-changing conflicts worldwide through an analysis of open-source material. He spoke to Warscapes editor-at-large Michael Bronner in a late-night conversation August 9th, with follow-up correspondence the 11th, 12th and 13th.
Michael Bronner: For most of your career, you’ve been up all night – doing what?
John McCreary: My specialty in government was understanding those things that are threating the United States, its interests and those of our allies. It’s the field that was called strategic intelligence warning – that was my job as senior intelligence officer for the Directorate of Intelligence and the Joint Staff, the J2. I used to write at the “Top Secret and above” level. I was asked to see if I could it on an unclassified level, and I’ve been doing it since 2006. Nightwatch follows the sun every day, so unless there’s a coup in Fiji, the first thing you see is North Korea.
MB: Having worked with classified intelligence for so long, how much can you really learn from open sources?
JM: It’s different, but I am astonished at how much is available to learn. The key thing that open sources give you that aren’t available in classified are behavior that indicates what someone is intending to do. Most important judgements are about intentions. You never get factual information on that. Open sources contain a lot of information about soft judgements. I can’t detect movements of troops. I can’t detect movements of aircraft and stuff like that. But I can gain insights into what people are thinking about, what they’re considering. The other side in any confrontation needs to communicate. Of course they bluff – you take it as assumption that sometimes people are going to lie – so you have to try to verify and get multiple phenomenology on any particular issue.
MB: The language North Korea uses, to an American reader, seems so bombastic on its face. Is there a method to it?
JM: Alexander George wrote a book called Propaganda Analysis. It is the only book of its kind and long out of print. It examines the work of a team of US propaganda analysts who worked in the basement of the Commerce Department during World War II to get information from Nazi propaganda, by working backwards from the article to the author. It is what I use.
George’s work teaches that the style of the propaganda stems from the system itself - its world view and its view of the nature of international relations and its view of the use of propaganda. North Korea’s propaganda mill is patterned after that of the Soviet Union. The Soviets and the Nazi propaganda mills worked almost identically.
North Korea’s system is rigidly authoritarian. It allows no room for doubt or for opposing points of view. Its view of international relations is a struggle for conquest (the other views are “competition” — a game; a “cooperative undertaking”; the “arena for statesmanship” - outsmarting the other side in a gentlemanly way; and “tutorial” – China’s favorite).
The primary use of propaganda is to reinforce North Korea’s self-image internally and externally. Internally, this bombastic style represents constant indoctrination of the population to maintain the system. External propaganda is a consistent extension of the internal indoctrination plus a venue for conquest in the war of words. The bombast is the natural extension of a system that they constantly tell their people is superior to all others. So their attacks must destroy the US. Their weapons must be bigger and more powerful. Their army must be “1 for 100” = one of their soldiers can kill 100 of anyone elses. This is not a napoleon/little man syndrome. It arises from communist doctrine.
The North Korean Workers’ Party Central Committee has a Department of Agitation and Propaganda. Every item published in every North Korean publication or broadcast of posted is approved by a secretary in the AGITPROP department. It is the most important department in the Central Committee after the department devoted to discipline. It is entirely a top-down system. Daily themes are set at and by AGITPROP, and the writers propose how they will advance those themes. You should understand that every piece, broadcast or posting is deliberate and vetted.
MB: What specifically do you look for in analyzing North Korean statements?
JM: Every piece has a structure. In the most serious pieces, the most important message is in the center paragraph of the article. Every piece starts out with a statement of how superior their regime is. The late Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok-chu told my delegation during a meeting in Pyongyang - off mic - that he was required to deliver a five minute diatribe to introduce the meeting and that we should not be offended! He promptly went back on mic to deliver the rant and we had a most cordial meeting thereafter.
North Korea applies a standardized and strict hierarchy of authority [in its writings]. The least authoritative articles are unsigned. There are several tiers of signed articles – using a real person’s real name, using a fictitious name, using the name of a cultural hero or great general. All apply shades of meaning and authority to the message in the content. The supreme commander is the top of the list. A statement by a spokesman for the supreme commander is lower in authority than a statement by the supreme commander. And so on.
In a crisis, I always look for the words “combat” and “readiness” and “alert.” Those will be repeated six times in a single piece when the North is worried about war. They’re not being used at all now. I also look for “semi-war” or “semi-state of war”; they refer to a condition of national alert and readiness for war, but not the highest level. The next level is Threat of War Readiness, and the top level is Full Combat Readiness.
I also look for the repetition of themes. Six or seven repetitions signifies a firm policy position...I look for the use of conditional clauses to statements that convey offensive intention, i.e., “at the first sign of an attack, we will…” The sentences that use conditional language always contain key signals.
MB: You've also been keeping a close watch on open-source statements and publications from China since the current crisis began. Where are the Chinese in all of this?
JM: China’s longstanding position is that it will not rescue North Korea from the follies of its leadership, but it will also not allow it to be destroyed. This position has not changed since the time of Deng Xiaoping.
Nuclear testing has introduced a new wrinkle because the tests rattle the [Chinese] villages in Black Dragon River Province along the Yalu. There is something in the Chinese concepts of sovereignty and responsibility to protect the people that physical disturbances caused by a tributary state should never be tolerated. Chinese leaders do not get uptight about ballistic missiles nearly so much as about nuclear detonations and a nuclear weapons system.
The Chinese propaganda style is fundamentally tutorial, and has been since the time of the Emperors. They are always teaching the Indochinese, Koreans, Japanese and Americans how to behave and what to do. China wants its obdurate and often dense students to learn by doing and by China’s example, without interference from the teacher. This adds nuance to Chinese exasperation with President Trump – a very difficult student.
In this teacher metaphor, the Chinese always lay out the lesson. That is what Global Times [the Chinese quasi-official daily] does for the English language audience. They strive for clarity in communicating the lesson.
China wants stability restored, which means the US should use dialogue and incentives to eliminate the nukes in North Korea. The Chinese are incredibly patient and will persist until North Korea complies, with our without the US, but it might take 50 years. It will continue to work to be the outside mediator who restores peace and brings talks. If it takes sides, it loses leverage. If it referees, it risks getting blamed for inadequacies, including inability to solve the problem.
One Global Times editorial made that very point last week. Trump would like to shoehorn China into being the front man in a confrontation with North Korea. Not gonna happen. China did intervene directly in April. It was not done in consultation with the US. It was done bilaterally and outside the notice of the international media. That only will happen if China and its people are physically damaged or jeopardized. Right now the parties are just talking. There are no significant physical changes that point to a war soon. That can change with a missile impact near Guam.
MB: It seems there has been both continuity and change in North Korean foreign policy since Kim Jong Un took power. What are the driving motivations?
JM: They want to survive. That’s what First Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok-Ju told me when I visited Pyongyang. He asked me, “Why can’t [the US] just leave us alone?” Now, that was when Kim Jong Il was still the leader of North Korea. Kim Jong Un is different. He seems to have revived the idea of wanting to reunify the Koreas by force, which Kim Jong Il kind of let slide. But he also wants to make North Korea a more modern place, so he’s rebuilt Sunan Airport [Pyongyang Sunan International Airport], and he’s built some conspicuous things like a ski resort on the East Coast of North Korea (and North Koreans don’t ski; it’s only for a few people).
In return for that, he's made a bargain with the armed forces leadership, the vice marshals of the Korean People's Army…to go where his father, Kim Jung Il would not go: Multiply ballistic missiles and create nuclear weapons. The first nuclear weapons test was in 2006, but Kim Jong Un has gone way beyond his father. Of course, that's not an uncommon Asian practice - the son is always supposed to outdo his forebearers. The bargain that I’m talking about is enshrined in the North Korean doctrine of the dual process, where they go for nukes and economic development at the same time. In this bargain, the military has gotten the better deal: They have their weapons, but economic development is still way, way far behind.
MB: Their nuclear program has been described primarily as a deterrent. Do you agree?
JM: A long time ago, I studied Singapore, and Singapore's military doctrine is called “the poison shrimp”: If you attack us, you will be hurt, too. The North Koreans don't use that language, but that is how they think about [having nuclear weapons]. I've talked with enough North Koreans to know that they know they can't win a war, but they can make it sufficiently painful so as to make the United States think multiple times before they do anything. So in that sense, I guess you would say it as a deterrent, but it's no greater a deterrent than what they had before with thousands of artillery pieces facing Seoul [there are some 100,000 Americans living in South Korea]. North Korea can fire 55 thousand rounds an hour of artillery, and the fact that North Korean has nukes doesn't change that fundamental equation. A subset of that idea is that North Korea wouldn't just fire conventional fire: They have 6,000 tons of chemical weapons and they use Soviet artillery doctrine in which every third or fourth round is a chemical round, so there are weapons of mass destruction that threaten South Korea way beyond what’s being discussed in the everyday press.
MB: But that’s changed significantly in the last several months in terms of the ability to hit the US directly…
JM: Well, it looks like it’s changed. The can certainly get a rocket that can shoot a long way, whether or not it can survive reentry. This week, the DIA, my old agency, has come out and said that now they think North Korea can miniaturize [a warhead]. I’ve thought North Korea could miniaturize for many years. Well, now all of a sudden, people have decided they can do it. But the way warning works is that you always operate on the worst-case-scenario, and you always have to safeguard against that. So is it worse? I don’t know that it’s worse.
MB: What are the most worrisome disconnects you’ve discerned between the US and North Korea?
JM: For a long time, because of their experience in the Korean war, North Korean leaders have believed that if they inflict some casualties on United States forces, the US will cut and run. It’s been a consistent belief they have, and it’s a gross misjudgement of how America has reacted to things like Pearl Harber or 9/11. But the North Koreans have held onto this. Their war doctrine for survival hinges on the idea the United States will not go to general war against them. And that’s a pretty risky thing. There is a risk of reaching the point of no return faster than they expect, stemming from a misinterpretation of the likely US response. They think we won't react with overwhelming force. They believe they will not start a general war at all because the US will seek negotiations after getting bloodied.
MB: President Trump made a fairly belligerent “open source” statement last week - that North Korea would be “met with fire and fury like the world has never seen” if they threaten the United States. From your vantage, studying the official responses, how did President Trump's statement play in Pyongyang?
JM: The language is sharper and harsher than what’s been used before, but I think it doesn’t change the North Koreans’ view of what they need to do…They understand the propaganda game. They will be concerned about "fire and fury" when they see aircraft carriers in the Sea of Japan. Then they will know they are in deep trouble. When they see more bomber movements - ship and aircraft movements. If the South Koreans go on alert and start to put their people in air raid shelters and things like that, that’s really serious. I don’t think that the movement of forces by itself is the trigger for North Korean decision making. I think it’s the readiness for war of South Korea and Japan.
MB: Are you saying, then, that the threat hasn’t changed substantively in recent days?
JM: I don’t see that it has yet. Here's what I'm looking for: I'm looking for the North Koreans to go to an increased state of national alert, okay? That means they close their borders; they stop the trade; the trains stop running; people go into air raid shelters or practice going into air raid shelters. They activate the civil defense system: They put anti-aircraft guns around public buildings; they increase guards at public buildings; they recall reserves to all the battle-stations in the forward area. They become active and they become fully prepared for war. That's what I'm looking for. Now, that's an intermediate stage, but that means that they expect to be attacked. I have not seen that yet.
MB: Have you ever seen that during your career?
JM: Yes. At least 12 times.
MB: So you think that they understand the rhetoric and the nuances a little bit better than the US press is giving them credit for at the moment.
JM: Absolutely. The big danger at this stage right now is that we will do something that we think is a precaution, and they will interpret it as a provocation or a direct threat. Or worse, the sign that we are getting ready to execute a decapitation operation, a preemption operation or a preventive war. If they see that…they’re not going to wait until the first shot is fired by us - they will attack first.
They have this sort of legalistic view that North Korea will not be the one to fire the first shot. They wanna have that moral high ground. The Soviets used to engage in that kind of thinking: They don’t want to be blamed for starting the war. On the other hand, they understand that they can’t afford to wait.
MB: So, your concern is that they might misread a move the US makes—
JM: Yeah. They have no generals - no marshals - who fought the Korean War [who are still] on active duty. In Kim Jong Un, they have a young man who has no military experience. Meanwhile, our war preparations have evolved enormously [since the Korean War] because we’ve been in constant war for 20 years - certainly since 9/11. And so the things they are familiar with are not necessarily the things that we do anymore. This is where their insular outlook, or isolation, is a drawback. For them, this is do-or-die: If they guess wrong, they lose their country. The real danger is that they feel coerced, and that would mostly come about because they were misreading what we intended. So it means that we have to be kind of in charge of what we’re doing.
MB: You said earlier, before I started recording, that you think the North might actually shoot missiles - not at Guam, but bracketing Guam, as they’ve threatened.
JM: Yeah, I think they might. I think Kim Jong Un will be advised to not escalate this. On the other hand, he is the guy who sank the South Korean patrol ship Cheonan off the West Coast [a major incident in 2010, when a torpedo fired from a North Korean miniature submarine killed 46 South Korean seamen]. They attribute the orders to him. He seems to be such an impulsive and petulant person. If it was his father, I would say, “This thing will blow over.” Kim Jong Il was risk averse: In the final analysis, Kim Jong Il never put the survival of North Korea at risk. But Kim Jong Un did when he shot the Cheonan. So he may think that he can get away with a warning shot at a US facility like Guam.
MB: Do you think he can get away with it?
JM: If they shoot at Guam, this could escalate. And they’re serious about shooting something - this is not a drill. The language is what’s changed. The most recent, statement is from the general in charge of strategic forces, not some flunky, and it's highly detailed. That’s a more ominous statement. The [details] are not presented as hypotheticals; they are presented just the way they described the ballistic missile launches on 4 July and on 28th July [just before they launched] - by height and distance, length of flight. This could get out of control really, really fast, especially when people start shooting things. It’s going to come down to the advice and the decision and the thinking of Kim Jong Un.