Michael Ledeen is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center.
This is a fantasy, but sometimes fantasies have a way of smelling out bits of truth. So who knows? I made it up, but maybe it’s accurate.
Kim begged for talks with Trump because he was frightened by an American disinformation op. Over the Obama years, the Norks, sometimes working with their Iranian, Chinese and Russian friends, penetrated the American policy-making and intelligence communities. It was easy, since the president was calling for new friendships with old enemies, so enemy agents slid into place throughout the intelligence community, the White House, and the State Department. Many of those recruits remained in high positions of the Trump Administration, and provided Pyongyang, Moscow, Peking and Tehran with exceptionally good intelligence about American intentions.
After a few months, Trump officials realized what was going on, but it was impossible to shut down all the foreign espionage. There were too many enemy agents, the anti-Trump forces in Congress would never approve a large-scale purge, and the Trump people weren’t savvy enough to find enough loyalists to staff out the government. So they decided to use our enemies’ own spies to funnel frightening disinformation to Kim.
He was accordingly fed fake intelligence, which he confirmed with his Iranian, Russian and Chinese friends, about American military plans to devastate his nuclear facilities. And while they were at it, devastate him as well. Some of his analysts thought it was nonsense, but, after all, the stories were coming through proven sources. Moreover, the story tracked well with Trump’s many violent statements about North Korea, and with Defense Secretary Mattis’s equally bombastic remarks. Unlike the happier Obama years, the Norks were altogether prepared to believe that this American president, indeed this American administration, was quite capable of launching a military assault against North Korea.
In any event, what was Kim to do? He didn’t have a reliable missile defense system. A successful American military strike would expose his own threats to be hollow, with incalculable consequences. He consulted his allies, and they all advised him to buy time. Meanwhile, they would check on the Americans’ intentions.
Kim didn’t need much convincing. He had always wanted to sit down with an American president; he thought it would give him new stature as a world leader. Now the US threat to his physical survival made it even more attractive. So he sent a message to Trump, “let’s talk.” He hoped that would turn out to be a win/win for him: no American bombing, and enhanced global standing. But Trump was not so easy. Having frightened the Nork dictator, he immediately pushed for concessions, which Kim was ready to offer (they’re only words, right?)
That is how it all came to pass, to near-universal surprise. We don’t know how it will play out, but in the meantime the disinformation ploy produced a counterintelligence coup here in Washington. By tailoring the messages—American officials were given different versions, and at different times–for Kim and his allies, the Trump counterspies identified at least some of the human channels the Norks, Iranians, Russians and Chinese were using to read our internal mail, and gain access to our internal policy discussions. This is a big deal, as time will tell. The recipients of the tailored intelligence cannot be sure that it was a deception, and even if they do (perhaps especially if they do), it will throw doubt on any future communications.
Tricking your enemy in international affairs is a dangerous game; you must constantly think yourself into the enemy’s mind, and imagine his thought processes and possible reactions. That is a world that James Jesus Angleton, longtime chief of CIA’s counterintelligence, used to describe as s “wilderness of mirrors.” It’s great when, as in this case, you’ve contaminated the enemy’s picture of the world. It’s dangerous if he figures out what’s going onl
Trump clearly won the first round, and he has fired a scary shot across the bows of our enemies. At least for the time being, Kim and his friends will be wondering if their spies are getting our real secrets, or if they are being gulled by the tricky Americans.
That element of doubt works in our favor, for it forces the enemy to protect against the worst-case scenario. They certainly don’t want to carry out a detailed “damage assessment,” trying to figure out if any of their agents in Washington has been “flipped,” and is now secretly working for our side.
Is all that laid out in The Art of the Deal? I think so. And I think Mike Pompeo knows all about it. His wit and intelligence are quite good enough to have managed this.