The limits of North Korea's media openness
April 12th, 2012
03:08 PM ET

The limits of North Korea's media openness

By Adam Levine

North Korea's opening of its launch pad to journalists has been a boon to North Korea watchers who have relied mostly on satellite imagery to take stock of the country's progress in developing long range missile and rocket capability. The flood of still photos and video have helped shape their understanding of what North Korea is up to.

"It is almost like a painting of the entire site," said Allison Puccioni, an analyst with IHS Jane's Defence Weekly. "I think we are learning a lot about North Korea."

The closeup shots have allowed Puccioni to get a better sense of the dimensions of the rocket program and of the facilities.

The shot further confirm that "the facility was built for a rocket probably a good deal larger than the actual Unha-3 that is being launched," Puccioni said in an interview with CNN.

The fuel housing buildings are much larger than the ones at an older North Korean facility that launched rockets similar in size to the one currently on the launch pad, she said.

The launch tower facility holding the current rocket is about 50% larger than the rocket itself, Puccioni said, adding it "almost looks like a little kid wearing a big kids clothes."

DigitalGlobe's Joseph Bermudez said the ground level access has "certainly helped" confirm what he is seeing from the skies. Bermudez is a senior analyst for the satellite imagery company and has been studying North Korea for 30 years.

"There is an innate fascination with any ground imagery from North Korea because it is so rare," Bermudez told CNN.

Both Bermudez and Puccioni said it was very telling what North Korea left in and what they left out of the journalists' tour.

"They are really trying to show the media that it is a peaceful operation, but the attempts are facile," said Puccioni. It was "pretty curated and carefully choreographed."

Recent satellite imagery shows the regime tore down military barracks ahead of the journalists' tour, she said.

"They are going to call it beautification, but it was a deliberate attempt" to change the image, she said. "You can't demilitarize North Korea."
Bermudez too noted that the tour gave a unique view, but not the whole picture. He said the journalists were taken into what they were told was the mission command center but the pictures he saw from inside only bolstered his impression that they were not seeing everything.

Based on satellite imagery he has viewed during the construction, the building is actually meant for checking out the satellite and loading it into the missile component that will carry the satellite into space. Bermudez said he could see that on the ceiling of the command center there were cranes.

"You don't have those cranes in a building that is just a control center," said Bermudez.

Tim Brown, an analyst with GlobalSecurity.org, observed that the stream of photographs and video taken by journalists at the launch pad site this weekend was pay-dirt for North Korea watchers.

"Previously, we have had to view the new launch site from 200 miles up with imaging satellites hurtling at 4 miles per second. Obeying the laws of Kepler, they are over the site for a few seconds at a time, arriving and departing at the same time of day, once every three days," he said in a posting on Global Security.

"With this "ground truth" image, we no longer have to squint at satellite images, trying to guess the height of the Unha-3 missile," he said. "It is about 29.5 meters, plus or minus 5%. We can see clearly that there are four movable service platforms, each with four levels, one either side of the rocket. The movable launch pad is about 2.5 meters high."

The photos show that the crane on top of the tower is pretty much the same type of crane you see on top of buildings during construction, Brown said. Closeup shots of the rocket show gray panels that are likely antennae to transmit telemetry.

A former military imagery analyst, writing on 38North.org, a site run by Johns Hopkins University, agrees that the new photos and video reveal North Korea has plans for a bigger rocket or missile. A South Korean paper reported earlier this month of a new 40-meter missile spied by satellites. U.S. sources questioned whether it was anything more than a mock-up.

But the new images indicate the North Koreans have room to grow at their launch facility, said the analyst Nick Hansen. Hansen writes that analyzing recent photos and satellite images suggests Kim Jong-Un's regime "is developing an intercontinental ballistic missile with longer range and greater capabilities than the one scheduled for testing this week."

"The Unha-3 rocket is set on a 7-meter high mobile launch platform. The 30-meter long rocket comes up to the second level of the fourth set of work platforms, leaving about 10 meters of the tower, enough to accommodate the reported new 40-meter rocket," Hansen wrote.

Hansen points to other clues including a satellite image from 2008 that shows a plug for the mobile launch pad that can reduce the size of the hole through which the rocket blast will fire to accommodate the Unha-3. But the actual hole is much bigger and Hansen noted "the plug can be removed to accommodate a larger rocket."

A 2006 satellite image taken during the launch area construction shows storage tanks in nearby buildings "greatly exceed what would be needed to fuel the rocket for this week's launch." Hansen noted the same is true of a nearby rocket engine test stand that appears designed to "fire larger, higher energy engines than the facility at the" the old launch site.

Hansen observed that none of this is "definitive" because "North Korea's WMD programs is scarce, even for governments watching Pyongyang closely." But he added that all the new images add pieces to the puzzle gives "a rare glimpse into Pyongyang's future plans as it moves down the road to becoming a small nuclear power, a development that has major implications for international peace and security."

This DigitalGlobe satellite image from April 12, 2012 showing a lot of activity on the launch pad

It also only gave journalists a brief of glimpse into the activity. A new image collected by DigitalGlobe on Wednesday shows significantly more activity which Bermudez said is "indicative of activity immediately pre-launch."

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Filed under: Asia • North Korea • Satellite imagery
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