You think you've had some bad dinner dates? James Clapper has had worse.
Clapper is the director of national intelligence, making him America's top spy. He revealed in a speech at Fordham Law School in New York on Wednesday new details of an extraordinary dinner he had in November with a top North Korean intelligence official during a secret trip to the rogue nation. Clapper said his North Korean host was the same man who would have authorized the cyberattack against Sony, an attack that hit Sony just weeks after Clapper left North Korea.
The dinner, Clapper said, occurred as he was on a mission to release two Americans held by North Korean authorities. Clapper dined with Kim Yong Chol, who heads the North Korean Reconnaissance General Bureau. Clapper described that agency as a blend of special operations forces and intelligence officers.
The dinner Clapper described may well be unprecedented in the history of espionage. Dr. Vince Houghton, the historian and curator at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C, said he can't think of any other example of a dinner between the heads of rival intelligence agencies. Allen Dulles, the 1950s CIA director, Houghton said, "was pretty out there. But even he never sat down with the head of the KGB."
Houghton said that sending an intelligence head on a diplomatic mission is extraordinarily rare for the United States. Even more unexpected may be that Clapper talked about it in public at all. "No. 1, this is not something Clapper should be talking about," Houghton said. "It's not very diplomatic." But Houghton said that may be the point: Clapper's remarks themselves may be part of an administration effort to tweak the North Koreans.
As Clapper tells it, the evening got off to a bad start. Clapper described a tense scene, as he and Kim pointed fingers at each other's chests, criticizing the other government's actions. At one point, he said his executive assistant urged him to take a bathroom break to defuse the situation.
Clapper said he learned several things from the unusual sit down. First, North Korea, he said, is a "family-owned" country.
"There is no room for dissent, not when the favorite management technique of their leader is public executions," Clapper said. "It's super effective, by the way. It's a great management tool."
And he said North Korea has been emboldened by the Sony hack. "If they get global recognition at low cost with no consequence, they will do it again, and keep doing it again until we push back," Clapper said. "And of course, others will follow suit."
Should Clapper have been worried about his safety at the dinner? The Spy Museum's Houghton doesn't think Clapper was in danger. "I think he wasn't particularly nervous about being poisoned at the table," Houghton said. "North Korea is not going to assassinate the director of national intelligence. As much as we laugh at them, they are a rational state."