Undercover from Overhead in North Korea

Why satellite images -- not smuggled videos -- reveal the real dangers lurking inside Kim Jong Un’s nuclear hermit kingdom.


And here we are again: inside the mysterious North Korea, the hermit kingdom that is not so hermit after all.

On Jan. 14, PBS’s Frontline featured the “Secret State of North Korea,” a documentary that used undercover footage to “shine light on the hidden world of the North Korean people.” And it did just that — taking viewers on the streets to meet the country’s poorest and most forgotten.

Though the street images can give us a glimpse of everyday life in North Korea, the satellite images — orbiting 250,000 feet over Pyongyang’s secret installations, where weapons of mass destruction are developed — tell us a great deal more about what Pyongyang has up its sleeve.

From research and development facilities to nuclear and missile test sites to plutonium production and uranium enrichment facilities, North Korea’s WMD programs demonstrate a five-decade-long, multibillion-dollar commitment comparable to the Manhattan Project. While some pundits argue that the North’s program is a bluff designed to squeeze assistance out of the international community, even the most accomplished con artist would find it impossible to fake such a large-scale effort. Moreover, the North may not want to hide everything: Its emerging program has a security mission — as well as a political one — to signal to the outside world that it is a force to be reckoned with.

But while the general public was been consumed by news of Dennis Rodman’s latest games, Pyongyang was working. 2013 was a productive year for North Korea in its push to modernize the country’s nuclear weapons complex. Here’s a look at what commercial satellites captured at four of its key WMD installations — and what this might mean for the year ahead.

Yongbyon Nuclear Facility

Located some 50 miles north of Pyongyang, Yongbyon is North Korea’s oldest nuclear installation, which American spy satellites have closely watched since the early 1960s. Two years ago, the North launched a major modernization program that, in 2013, began to yield results, catapulting forward its nuclear weapons program.

Probably one of the most notable surprises this past year was that North Korea resuscitated an old 5 megawatt plutonium production reactor, which had been shuttered in 2007 as part of a negotiated agreement at the multilateral six-party talks (which brought together the United States, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia, and North Korea). This is a key development, as the plutonium produced from this very reactor was not only used in the North’s past nuclear tests but also to build its small nuclear arsenal, an estimated eight to 12 bombs. Now that it is operating again, experts believe it can produce one bombs’ worth of fissile material every year.

North Korea also doubled the size of the complex’s new uranium enrichment plant, first revealed in 2010, though that probably is not yet fully operational. And if that weren’t enough development for the year, Pyongyang went the extra mile and finished the exterior of an experimental light-water reactor — intended to produce power for the energy-starved country — and constructed a building the size of a football field that may produce fuel for that small reactor.

Things to watch in 2014: Expect to see Pyongyang restart a large reprocessing plant — also disabled in 2007 — that can separate plutonium from the spent fuel rods in the operating reactor. The reactor is operating, but separating the plutonium from waste materials in its fuel rods will require using this facility. It’s also worth keeping an eye on the uranium enrichment plant, which could become operational this year. Pyongyang will finish installing equipment inside the new light-water reactor and get ready for trial runs leading to its eventual operation.

Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site

Located in a deserted mountainous region, Punggye-ri has been the site of three nuclear tests, most recently in February 2013. After the blast, North Korea spent most of 2013 preparing the area for future detonations. While there are no signs that North Korea plans to test again soon, commercial satellites have spotted a new tunnel entrance and a growing pile of dirt and rock nearby, which means that workers have been excavating the site. When completed, the North will have a total of three tunnels ready and waiting for future detonations.

Things to watch in 2014: Though the 2013 events cannot provide strong insight into whether the North plans to test a nuclear weapon again in 2014, it is clear that it can conduct a test quickly if the order should come from Pyongyang. Furthermore, because the number of tunnels is growing, North Korea can keep testing into the foreseeable future.

Sohae Rocket Test Facility

The site of Pyongyang’s 2012 rocket launches, Sohae is five times larger than the North’s older Tonghae test facility. Six new construction projects began in 2013, the most serious of which is intended to modify the pad used for previous tests of the Unha space-launch vehicle. When modification is finished, the new gantry will be able to fire an even bigger rocket — reportedly 25 percent longer with a larger booster that can lift satellites into higher orbits. The new rocket’s technology can also be used to develop missiles carrying warheads that will be able to fly intercontinental distances. If that isn’t scary enough, the North appears to be constructing flat-launch pads for testing new mobile missiles still under development — this includes the KN-08, a mobile intercontinental-range ballistic missile spotted in military parades in Pyongyang in 2012 and again in 2013, and pegged by the Pentagon as a potential threat to parts of the United States once it is deployed.

Throughout 2013, the North also conducted tests of large rocket engines, which is essential in its quest to develop bigger and better rockets. 

Things to watch in 2014: Aside from more tests of large rocket engines, construction of the modified launch pad should be complete by early spring, allowing the North to conduct full-scale launches of either its older Unha rocket or a new larger space-launch vehicle. Mobile missile tests could take place at any time after summer assuming the flat launch pads are completed by then.

Tonghae Rocket Test Facility

Operating since the mid-1980s, North Korea’s oldest testing facility fell into disuse after a rocket launch in 2009 (most likely because the newer Sohae facility had been completed). However, a major construction program (first started in 2011 and then halted in late 2012) resumed in the fall of 2013 — possibly because Pyongyang could be planning an active rocket development and space-launch program that requires another facility. In just eight weeks the North Koreans completed a new launch-control center and resumed construction of a rocket-assembly building. Work has yet to resume on a new pad that will also be suitable for launching larger rockets. Satellite pictures show nearby buildings under construction that will house fuel tanks three to four times larger than those needed to support launches of the Unha.

Things to watch for in 2014: Pyongyang may make significant progress in completing construction of new facilities at Tonghae — the new launch pad, a rocket-assembly building, and fuel-tank buildings — enabling it to use the newly modernized site for support firing large rockets in the future.

* * *

The 250,000-feet vantage point unveils a hidden world just as disturbing, if not more so, than the one illuminated by the Frontline documentary. These images not only provide a glimpse of a dangerous future, but also demonstrate that “strategic patience” — the Obama administration’s policy toward North Korea — is a failure.

If 2013 is any guide, 2014 will see similar advances as Pyongyang moves ahead with the building blocks needed to produce more nuclear weapons and the improved missiles needed to deliver them. Whether the Obama administration will finally realize that patience is not a virtue — and that it is high time for a serious policy review about North Korea’s intentions — remains to be seen. But the odds are that 2014 will just mean more of the same in Washington. And even a satellite can tell you that’s a bad idea.

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