WASHINGTON – North Korea's nuclear tests and missile launches follow a familiar pattern of provocation but take on dangerous significance with Kim Jong Il's designation of his successor last week, the top U.S. intelligence official said Monday.
The North Korean leader last week named his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, 26, to follow him into the family dictatorship. Kim Jong Il has ruled the country since 1994.
National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair said missile and nuclear tests are calculated to scare the West into offering North Korea money and other inducements to abandon the weapons programs.
"The character of North Korea's behavior is a fairly familiar pattern of doing something outrageous and then expecting to be paid for stopping doing it," Blair said in a speech to the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, an intelligence and defense industry group.
But he said the combination of a succession in a tightly controlled dictatorship and provocative military behavior is a "potentially dangerous mixture."
North Korea conducted its second underground nuclear test in May. The blast came less than two months after the North fired an intermediate-range rocket over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean. Though North Korea claimed it launched a satellite into space, the U.S. and other countries believe it was meant to test ballistic missile technology.
U.S. intelligence agencies are also closely monitoring the world economy for signs of crumbling governments that might result in U.S. military or humanitarian intervention. Blair said established democracies and totalitarian regimes are likely to weather the instability best, but fragile young democracies are in more peril the longer the global recession continues. He said the government of Ukraine and countries in South Asia, except for India, are the most vulnerable.
"Another year or two might bring a different and worse story," he said.
He said the United States already is getting less help from other countries around the world on military and humanitarian projects because of the economic situation.
But Blair praised Pakistan's recent military crackdown on the Taliban in the Swat Valley, a resort area that had not been under the group's sway or power previously. He said the United States and Pakistan are more closely cooperating in the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida. He said there has been a "long legacy of mistrust" between the two countries but said Pakistan seems willing to work with the United States in ways that did not seem possible previously.
Blair also defended the legality of the Bush administration's so-called warrantless wiretapping program.
"In fact, it wasn't illegal" he said. "You'll have to take my word for it."
For years following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to intercept phone conversations and e-mails inside the United States. He did so without the knowledge or permission of a court created by law 30 years ago to oversee just such activities to prevent government abuse of its surveillance powers.
Critics of the secret program — the extent of which has never been revealed — contend the government has illegally wiretapped and used data-mining techniques to sweep up vast amounts of phone and e-mail communications.
A federal judge last week tossed out more than three dozen lawsuits filed against telecommunications companies for allegedly helping the government eavesdrop, and ordered officials in five states to drop their investigations of the companies.
Several lawsuits that directly accuse the government of wrongdoing rather than the companies are still pending.