U.S. Spies to Partner With Human Rights Groups to Keep an Eye on North Korea

The imagery agency wants its own “CIA World Factbook.”

North Korean soldiers stand at their watchtower in February, 2016 on the banks of the Yalu River in the North Korean town of Sinuiju. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)
North Korean soldiers stand at their watchtower in February, 2016 on the banks of the Yalu River in the North Korean town of Sinuiju. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)

For the past several years, humanitarian groups and nongovernmental organizations have combed commercial satellite imagery in North Korea, looking for evidence of human rights abuses, such as mass graves. Now, some will have access to satellite photos and analysis from an American spy agency.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which maps the earth’s surface with data from drones, satellites, and other airborne craft, will provide raw imagery, expert review, and the use of an already developed digital app and publishing platform to several nonprofit organizations and think tanks.

These first partnerships will focus on North Korea, Chris Rasmussen, a longtime military intelligence analyst and data expert with NGA, told Foreign Policy in an interview.

The NGA maps everything from coastline data to the far reaches of the Arctic; some of that imagery and those maps are already public. But rarely does the U.S. government share imagery of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s isolated regime, let alone an intelligence agency’s analysis of sites there.

The decision to work with NGOs to highlight the human rights abuses by the regime in Pyongyang comes at a critical time. The Trump administration has charted a confrontational course with Kim over his nuclear program, and the intelligence community has ramped up its focus on the country.

Highlighting Pyongyang’s human rights abuses is also part of the Trump administration’s larger strategy toward North Korea.

During his State of the Union speech, U.S. President Donald Trump made a point of honoring the late American student Otto Warmbier, who died shortly after being released from imprisonment in Pyongyang for allegedly trying to steal a propaganda poster. Trump also invited North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho as a special guest to the speech, drawing thunderous applause as Ji hoisted his crutches in the air in the audience.

Rasmussen said he and his coworkers, and their future partners in the public sector, are “motivated by public service to produce original research on high-priority strategic and humanitarian intelligence issues.” Rasmussen declined to mention which specific partners NGA would be working with, saying the agreements have not been formalized yet.

Rasmussen recently presented the program, many months in the works, to the Intelligence Community Transparency Council, which was created after Edward Snowden’s leaks in 2013. While NGA declined to describe specifics about what issues it would be helping outside organizations to study, there are numerous human rights concerns in North Korea.

The North Korean government has a long record of imprisoning and killing its own people, and in the past, humanitarian organizations have helped plot the locations of mass graves where the regime carried out brutal mass killings, pinpointed political prison camps, and examined environmental and weather-related disasters, all using satellite imagery and defector testimony. Having NGA’s assistance will give this kind of work a major boost, going beyond traditional contracting partnerships to something public and sharing information without requiring onerous security clearances or secrecy, Rasmussen explained, without mentioning specific issues NGA will help examine.

The intelligence community often publishes declassified historical information, but that can take years. Doing something with current imagery is something new.

No government assets, like imagery from government satellites, will be used initially, which means the pictures for now will be limited to the commercial imagery NGA purchases — but even those could be beneficial to outside groups.

I want to see this turn into the CIA World Factbook of high-quality authoritative original research on intelligence,” Rasmussen said. He called the opportunity to put NGA’s skills on the humanitarian problems of the world and create detailed, original reports about these issues with NGOs and think tanks “incredibly exciting.”

Scott Edwards, a senior advisor at Amnesty International, said the group has a blanket prohibition on working with governments, based on the possibility that critics could argue the research is somehow tainted. However, when smaller organizations agree to partner with NGA and publish information on human rights abuses, Amnesty International would applaud them.

Any shining of a light on a human rights abuse is a good thing,” Edwards told FP. “I’d be remiss to critique any other NGOs for innovative ways of getting to findings of fact,” he said.

He cautioned, however, that Amnesty would seek to verify that analysis based on its own independent assessment of the imagery. Amnesty would look to purchase the imagery and replicate the analysis ourselves, to make sure the findings of fact can’t be dismissed … as a ploy by the U.S. government,” he said.

Scott Stevens, the administrative director of the Transitional Justice Working Group, based in Seoul, found the possibility of partnership with the U.S. government appealing, though fraught with a few potential concerns. “High resolution satellite imagery for specific locations is expensive,” he wrote in an email to FP. “With higher resolution imagery, we could take a closer look at the suspected human rights crime scenes we’ve identified. Better imagery might mean better analysis.”

However, Stevens said there’s danger in revealing the location of the sites to anyone outside the organization, even if the intelligence community does keep information very safe and secure. “Revealing which sites we have identified to date would give those opposed to our work a short list of priorities for any clearing operations. I would assume that the NGA’s security protocols are strong, but there is always a risk in transferring information outside of our organization’s security environment.”

The group would have to balance existing privacy agreements it has with defectors whose information they receive, particularly if working with NGA required signing any additional agreements. It would also take a lot of work to incorporate new information into their workflow, Stevens explained.

Rasmussen stressed that NGA won’t be writing any of the reports; the organizations NGA partners with will maintain full editorial independence over the issues they cover, he said.

This isn’t Rasmussen’s first push to open up the intelligence world. At NGA, Rasmussen pushed for software that would allow intelligence community employees to view unclassified summaries of reports on their smartphones, rather than having to be at their desk in a secured facility. That effort turned into Tearline, a smartphone application for government employees, now available in the Apple app store and the Google Play store.

He also headed up the Pathfinder project, which has been focused on acquiring more open-source intelligence from public companies, pushing NGA to do more unclassified analysis.

New reports from NGA’s partners on North Korea will be available in multiple locations, including the public Tearline smartphone application and website, where a preview page is already available, and most likely on a new website from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence called the Public’s Daily Brief, a riff on the President’s Daily Brief, the high-level intelligence report the president has received almost every day since 1946.

NGA is in a unique position, according to Rasmussen. The CIA and National Security Agency can’t publish intercepted communications or human source reporting. But NGA has access to a massive repository of satellite imagery that isn’t all classified and could serve the public, not just the intelligence community. “The targets aren’t flagged as sensitive,” Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen was a part of the process to update the classification policies, an effort he said “paved the pathway” for projects like the partnership to monitor the North Korean humanitarian issues. “This kind of collaboration has never been done before with an intelligence agency … at least that I’m aware of,” Rasmussen said.

As tensions with North Korea escalate to a fever pitch, including toward a potential conflict, it’s an opportune time for both parties to shed light on some of the atrocities from within the secretive nation.

As for future projects in other areas of the world? Rasmussen is hopeful.

“If we get a million downloads, it’s going to make it easier for me to say, let’s expand to other areas,” he said.