America’s retired North Korea intelligence officer offers a parting message on the nuclear threat

Sep 7, 2023, 9:21 PM

Syd Seiler speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 5, 20...

Syd Seiler speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023. Seiler is freshly retired after decades of advising presidents, military commanders and diplomats, making reported secret trips to North Korea and serving as a lead U.S. negotiator on talks to contain its nuclear program. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The founder of North Korea’s ruling dynasty, an isolationist totalitarian leader named Kim Il Sung, was still building some of the country’s first nuclear facilities when Syd Seiler arrived on the Korean Peninsula as a young U.S. military intelligence officer.

Over the four decades since, Seiler has watched closely as Kim, his son and now his grandson have clung to their nuclear program and developed the potential to lob nuclear warheads at the U.S. and its allies if they choose.

Now Seiler is freshly retired after decades of advising presidents, military commanders and diplomats, making reported secret trips to North Korea and serving as a lead negotiator on talks to contain its nuclear program. And he has a parting message to American leaders: Don’t be discouraged.

North Korea’s fiery rounds of missile test launches are no reason to give up on the international sanctions and pressure, or to simply accept that the ruling Kim family is now a nuclear-armed power, Seiler told The Associated Press this week.

“That’s a failure of deterrence?” he asked, rhetorically. “That’s nonsense. We’re deterring an attack.”

Seiler helped shape the U.S. policy of deterrence, diplomacy and international pressure to deal with the nuclear threat. Following are some of his conclusions, drawing on his decades of experience before retiring this summer as the U.S. national intelligence officer for North Korea:


Seiler sees a strategy and a rhythm to the single-minded nuclear and missile expansion, the rounds of U.S. and South Korean military exercises and North Korean test launches, and the blustery threats, as when the government of Kim Jong Un — grandson of the founding ruler — threatens a “deluge of fire” on neighboring South Korea.

But the Kim family’s worry is not so much about an attack from outside, Seiler argues. He said in sticking to the nuclear program even at the expense of North Korea’s economy, Kim Jong Un has taken a lesson from deposed Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. A firing squad abruptly ended the communist leader’s rule in 1989 when his people rose up against him.

Having cut North Koreans off from most contact with the outside world, Kim Jong Un, his father and his grandfather before him have seen their regime’s survival as lying in convincing their people the country is a worker’s paradise under threat from the outside world, and only the Kim family and its nuclear weapons can protect them, the former intelligence officer said.

Actions prioritizing the nuclear program over the feeding of your people seem irrational, Seiler said. “But in terms of the logic of North Korea, they make sense.”


U.S. officials have said Kim Jong Un may travel to Russia this month for a meeting with President Vladimir Putin, who they say is looking to North Korea to supply ammunition for Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Kim “probably sees in this meeting an opportunity to join hands with a like-minded fellow anti-U.S. leader,” Seiler said.

Worrisome possible outcomes include Russia helping North Korea beef up “its pretty antiquated … museum-ready” conventional forces or its weapons of mass destruction, Seiler said.

“And of course, the worst-case scenario is that Kim Jong Un is watching a leader seeking to … achieve strategic objectives through the use of force,” Seiler said, referring to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

“And suddenly whether Kim, either directly signaled or indirectly signaled by the new relationship with Vladimir Putin, sees a flashing yellow light or green light to engage in similar military actions against” enemy South Korea, he said.

“That would be the worst-of-all fears scenarios,” he said.

But that’s much less likely, he said. “I don’t think what Russia wants to do is to seek a relationship with North Korea in any way that significantly leads to instability in the region.”


Even this year, one U.S. intelligence assessment has been that Kim Jong Un would continue to be a bellicose neighbor for South Korea and an unpleasant member of the global community — but was unlikely to actually wage nuclear war at least through 2030.

But Seiler and others see growing reasons to worry now about what Kim may have planned for South Korea, its democratically governed and U.S.-allied neighbor.

As Kim expands and improves his nuclear arsenal beyond what he would need for deterrence, he has sharpened his threats toward the south in the past 1 1/2 years while honing ballistic missiles capable of reaching the U.S., South Korea’s protector, Seiler noted.

“North Korea was clearly developing capabilities that would enhance its position vis-à-vis South Korea. And so going forward, this is where the room for concern is,” Seiler said.

Coupled with growing domestic debate in South Korea about how much the country should rely on the United States’ protection, there’s “kind of an awakening of a North Korea threat that, frankly, we should have caught on to a couple of decades ago,” he said.

Denial or wishful thinking may have led some in the West to overlook the implications of the growing threat for a time, he said, although the intelligence community was well aware.

Meanwhile, Putin is battling in Ukraine to reclaim what he maintains is Russia’s historical territory, and the U.S. and its allies are paying growing attention to China’s stated openness to reclaiming Taiwan by force if need be.

It’s all “helped create an environment where this issue of what Kim Jong Un might choose to do in the use of force domain, backed by his nuclear weapons, is a greater subject of debate than it was even a year ago,” Seiler noted.

How strong is that risk right now?

“Well, I think right now Kim is deterred,” Seiler said.


Among his experiences in North Korea that stood out, Seiler pointed to watching a landmark 1983 Korean television show. Unscripted, the show turned into an emotional, marathon, 453-hour live broadcast that reunited Korean families divided under Japanese colonization or during World War II and the Korean War.

For Koreans, the broadcast laid bare the heartache of separated families in the Cold War. It led to what would be sporadic and brief North-South reunions across the rigidly divided Korean Peninsula.

“’I grew up here. I lost my sister there. My little sister had a birthmark there,”’ Seiler said, recounting those who called in to the show. ”And someone would call in and say, ‘Hey, are you so-and-so?”‘

“I was brought to tears by it,” Seiler said. For an outsider, it made clear the lasting human costs of the barriers that the North had erected against the South.

“But it’s also a reminder,” Seiler said. “We can never let the humanitarian dimensions of this issue fall off the table.”

National News

FILE - Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., briefs reporters following a closed-door Repu...

Associated Press

With House Republicans in turmoil, colleagues implore GOP holdouts not to shut down government

WASHINGTON (AP) — Working furiously to take control of a House in disarray, allies of Speaker Kevin McCarthy implored their Republican colleagues Saturday to drop their hardline tactics and work together to approve a conservative spending plan to prevent a federal shutdown. In public overtures and private calls, Republican lieutenants of the embattled speaker pleaded […]

53 minutes ago

Associated Press

3 shot and killed in targeted attack in Atlanta, police say

ATLANTA (AP) — Three people were shot and killed Saturday in a targeted, daytime attack in Atlanta, police said. Officers responded to a call reporting that someone had been shot in the city’s West End neighborhood around 1:30 p.m., police said in a news release. A preliminary investigation indicates a man approached two people and […]

60 minutes ago

Associated Press

California governor vetoes bill requiring custody courts to weigh affirmation of gender identity

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California Gov. Gavin Newsom has vetoed a bill that would have required judges to consider whether a parent affirms their child’s gender identity when making custody and visitation decisions. In announcing his veto Friday night, Newsom released a statement saying he has “a deep commitment to advancing the rights of transgender […]

2 hours ago

A sign marks a roadside rest stop that has been made to look like the historic security gate that a...

Associated Press

Birthplace of the atomic bomb braces for its biggest mission since the top-secret Manhattan Project

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. (AP) — Los Alamos was the perfect spot for the U.S. government’s top-secret Manhattan Project. Almost overnight, the ranching enclave on a remote plateau in northern New Mexico was transformed into a makeshift home for scientists, engineers and young soldiers racing to develop the world’s first atomic bomb. Dirt roads were hastily […]

3 hours ago

Associated Press

California bill to have humans drivers ride in autonomous trucks is vetoed by governor

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California Gov. Gavin Newsom has vetoed a bill to require human drivers on board self-driving trucks, a measure that union leaders and truck drivers said would save hundreds of thousands of jobs in the state. The legislation vetoed Friday night would have banned self-driving trucks weighing more than 10,000 pounds (4,536 […]

3 hours ago

FILE - House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of Calif., speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill, Friday, Sept. 2...

Associated Press

Speaker McCarthy gives in to hard-line conservatives in hopes of solving government funding impasse

WASHINGTON (AP) — Staring down a fast-approaching government shutdown that threatens to disrupt life for millions of Americans, Speaker Kevin McCarthy has turned to a strategy that so far has preserved his tenuous hold on House leadership but also marked it by chaos: giving hard-right lawmakers what they want. In his eight months running the […]

4 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Swedish Cyberknife...

September is Prostate Cancer Awareness Month

September is a busy month on the sports calendar and also holds a very special designation: Prostate Cancer Awareness Month.

Ziply Fiber...

Dan Miller

The truth about Gigs, Gs and other internet marketing jargon

If you’re confused by internet technologies and marketing jargon, you’re not alone. Here's how you can make an informed decision.

Education families...

Education that meets the needs of students, families

Washington Virtual Academies (WAVA) is a program of Omak School District that is a full-time online public school for students in grades K-12.

Emergency preparedness...

Emergency planning for the worst-case scenario

What would you do if you woke up in the middle of the night and heard an intruder in your kitchen? West Coast Armory North can help.

Innovative Education...

The Power of an Innovative Education

Parents and students in Washington state have the power to reimagine the K-12 educational experience through Insight School of Washington.

Medicare fraud...

If you’re on Medicare, you can help stop fraud!

Fraud costs Medicare an estimated $60 billion each year and ultimately raises the cost of health care for everyone.

America’s retired North Korea intelligence officer offers a parting message on the nuclear threat