CIA Director Mike Pompeo discussed the potential for fomenting an insurrection against the Kim Jong Un regime in North Korea with a high-level defector, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
The meeting between Pompeo and Thae Yong Ho, one of the highest-ranking North Korean officials to defect to South Korea, took place during the CIA director's visit to South Korea earlier this month.
Disclosure of the meeting between the CIA chief and the defector comes as tensions remain high on the peninsula because of increased Trump administration concern about North Korea's development of nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems.
A CIA spokeswoman declined to comment on Pompeo's meeting with Thae, citing a policy of not discussing the director's overseas travel.
Pompeo visited Seoul from April 29 to May 2 and met with American diplomats and military officials, according to South Korean news reports.
During the session with Thae, Pompeo discussed whether conditions inside North Korea were ripe for an uprising against Kim by the military, security, or political officials, according to intelligence officials familiar with the meeting.
Thae responded that he believed conditions within North Korea were conducive to such an insurrection.
North Korea remains a totalitarian police state that has been accused of engaging in crimes against humanity by a United Nations commission that investigated rights abuses by the regime.
The CIA director, according to the officials, is taking steps to strengthen the CIA's espionage and covert action branch and increase its foreign operations capabilities. The Directorate of Operations was weakened under Pompeo's predecessor, Obama administration appointee John Brennan, the officials said.
Under Brennan, CIA clandestine and covert operations capabilities were limited severely, mainly by agency lawyers who limited overseas activities to less risky endeavors.
Pompeo is said to be taking steps to strengthen the directorate of operations with increased resources, training, and personnel.
The directorate at one time was the CIA's premier section, staffed with elite spies and covert action specialists. But the directorate's capabilities were curtailed during the Obama administration in favor of counterterrorism operations that reduced the focus on spying and covert operations in favor of drone strikes aimed at killing terrorist leaders.
"They are getting ready for more aggressive operations," said a source familiar with the effort.
In January, Thae, the defector, told reporters in Seoul the Kim regime is "crumbling" and efforts to control outside information from penetrating the closed system were failing due to official corruption and growing discontent.
"I am sure that more defections of my colleagues will take place, since North Korea is already on a slippery slope," Thae said at a news conference. "The traditional structures of the North Korean system are crumbling."
Thae worked as a senior diplomat in the North Korean embassy in London and defected in the summer of 2016.
Thae advocates using information to break the North Korean regime's control of outside news to help ordinary citizens overthrow the regime.
Controls on information in North Korea are breaking down because security officials can be bribed easily to ignore people who access banned media.
Bruce Bechtol, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, said Kim's hold on power is weaker than that of his father, Kim Jong Il, who in turn did not have the same grip on power his father, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung.
"This, combined with the ongoing difficulties in the economy, makes for conditions that are extremely difficult in North Korea," said Bechtol, a political science professor at Angelo State University,
"Because of Kim's weaker hold on power than his predecessors, and the powerful internal security services, it is most likely that any insurrection is going to come from members of the elite—not from the bottom up," he said.
In South Korea, U.S. Forces Korea recently disclosed plans to create a special unit to collect and analyze human intelligence on North Korea, the semi-official South Korean Yonhap News Agency reported May 7.
The specialized unit will be stood up in October with the 501st Military Intelligence Brigade of the U.S. Eighth Army.
The focus will be on gathering information about North Korea through human sources, such as defectors like Thae.
Pompeo's talks with Thae in South Korea coincided with charges leveled by Pyongyang that the CIA plotted with South Korean intelligence to assassinate Kim.
Days after the meeting between Pompeo and Thae, North Korea's Ministry of State Security publicly accused the CIA and the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS) of recruiting a North Korean timber worker in Russia to return to North Korea and kill the dictator.
While the Pyongyang regime has leveled similar charges in the past, the most recent accusation was unusually detailed. Pyongyang asserted the plot involved providing the timber worker with communication equipment and plans to use "biochemical substances including radioactive substance and nano-poisonous substance."
The North Korean ministry has itself been accused by South Korean intelligence of carrying out the brazen assassination of Kim's brother, Kim Jong Nam, at an airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, using the nerve agent VX.
The Chosun Ilbo reported Pompeo met with NIS director Lee Byung-ho and with officials in the presidential office known as Cheong Wa Dae.
Pompeo discussed the Trump administration's revised policy toward North Korea, which has shifted from so-called strategic ambiguity to one involving increased strategic pressure on the regime.
The new policy is based on intelligence reports that have increased concerns North Korea will deploy a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the United States within the next several years
Army Gen. Vincent Brooks, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea, said in a written statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee last year that Kim has emerged as more dangerous and unpredictable than his father.
"He exercises complete dominion over his subordinates in a humiliating and brutal fashion including purges, public demotions and re-promotions of military leaders, and brutal public executions," Brooks stated, adding that Kim has canonized the nuclear weapons program into the constitution and flagrantly flouts U.N. sanctions.
"Additionally, he recently threatened pre-emptive nuclear strikes against the United States and other countries in the region," Brook said.
Since taking power after the death of his father in 2011, Kim has ruthlessly purged and executed scores of officials in a bid to consolidate power.
Among those executed were Kim's uncle, Jang Song Thaek, the nation's second-most powerful leader in 2013, a defense minister, Hyon Yong Chol, who reportedly was executed with large-caliber anti-aircraft guns in 2015, and the military chief of staff, Gen. Ri Yong-gil in 2016.
Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats warned last week in Senate testimony that North Korea is a growing threat to the United States.
"North Korea’s unprecedented level of testing and displays of strategic weapons in 2016 indicate that Kim is intent on proving he has the capability to strike the U.S. mainland with nuclear weapons," Coats said.
Numerous missile tests and two underground nuclear tests last year likely "shortened North Korea's pathway toward a reliable ICBM, which largely uses the same technology," Coats said.
Coats predicted North Korea would conduct its first intercontinental range missile flight test this year.
"After five years in power, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un continues to defy international sanctions for his country’s behavior and reinforce his authority through purges, executions, and leadership shuffles, restricting fundamental freedoms, and enforcing controls on information," Coats said.