Interview

‘Camouflage, Concealment, and Deception’

What satellite imagery tells us about North Korea’s ballistic missile program.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects the successful test-fire of the intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14 at an undisclosed location on July 4, 2017. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects the successful test-fire of the intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14 at an undisclosed location on July 4, 2017. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

While the Trump administration continues to pursue its diplomatic opening with North Korea, Pyongyang has quietly continued work at its ballistic missile bases in rugged, remote corners of the country, according to a report released this week by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington.

Joseph Bermudez, the report’s primary author and a North Korea expert, analyzed commercial satellite imagery and identified 13 of an estimated 20 missile bases scattered across North Korea, where troops are preparing for a possible military conflict with the United States.

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump dismissed the report, writing on Twitter that he is aware of the bases and that the document contains “nothing new.”

That may very well be true; American intelligence agencies are likely aware of the bases. But the CSIS report makes public information that is rarely discussed outside of classified meeting rooms.

Foreign Policy caught up with Bermudez to discuss methods and findings and their implications for Trump’s diplomatic efforts.

Foreign Policy: The New York Times, which was the first to write about your research, framed its write-up of your study as a “great deception” that the North Koreans were perpetrating on the global community. Do you agree with that framing?

Joseph Bermudez: I wouldn’t phrase it that way. North Korea has since at least the 1960s pursued a policy of camouflage, concealment, and deception at all levels of its WMD and ballistic missile programs. It has done that to limit outside—and you can read that as U.S., South Korean, or even Chinese or Russian—understanding of their true capabilities and their limitations.

It’s important that the study be a place to start a discussion, where we can both can say, “OK, this is what we know.”

FP: Do you think the public misunderstands the current nature and perhaps threat of the Korean missile program?

JB: I think that it’s flawed in many areas; people are either underestimating or overestimating the threat, or just not understanding how the North Koreans view the strategic force. There is some preliminary thought that the North Koreans perceive their ballistic missile capabilities and nuclear weapons to be more destructive than they are objectively. A Scud ballistic missile could plop a thousand-kilogram warhead on a football field, and that would create a very big crater. But it’s not going to destroy the entire stadium. But in the North Korean view it is an awesome, terrible weapon that has multiple effects. I think that the North Koreans have a view of ballistic missiles, nuclear weapons, and all weapons of mass destruction as having much greater impact on the battlefield than they do objectively. That’s something many Americans do, too.

If the estimates of inventory of around 800 to 2,000 ballistic missiles are correct and if they were all armed with conventional warheads, they would have a truly devastating effect upon South Korea and parts of Japan. But would it stop a war? Would it be the war-winning factor? No, I don’t think so.

FP: The Singapore agreement doesn’t include any mention of missiles, yet the Trump administration views concessions on North Korea’s missile program to be core to their idea of denuclearization. Do you think that that the Trump administration’s demands that North Korea give up its missile programs are in any way realistic?

JB: In any future deal, I believe that a full accounting of the ballistic missiles—their delivery systems for nuclear weapons—has to be on the table. To ignore that aspect of it would lead us down a path of self-deception.

FP: North Korea is unique in being both extremely poor and a nuclear power. Are there unique ways in which the North Koreans think about the use of ballistic missiles that you think it’s important for readers to understand?

JB: It appears as if North Korea has studied ballistic missile use in the developing world for many years. They’ve extracted lessons learned from the use of ballistic missiles in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, in the Iran-Iraq war, in Yemen, in Afghanistan, how the U.S. conducted counter-Scud operations in Iraq. They’ve derived lessons from that, though we don’t know a great deal about their tactics. But they seem to be developed from those lessons learned. We can expect them to be challenging to find and destroy in a future conflict. The fact that they have dispersed their bases all around the nation indicates that they are trying to maximize their survivability. It also exhibits to me the fact that they committed a great deal of their limited resources to the development and preservation of these forces.

FP: Kim Jong Un has made major advances in his country’s rocket and missile forces since taking power and appears to have increased the pace of progress after a period of setbacks. How has he been able to do that?

JB: Ballistic missile programs follow a natural cycle: design, development, prototype production, testing. Components within ballistic missile programs follow a natural cycle as well. What we have seen since Kim Jong Un came to power are two broad things. These cycles for a number of systems had reached a point during his time where they were going to test. What he did do—from what we can tell—is he moved people around and moved resources around to maximize the capabilities of specific programs.

What was very important to Kim—as opposed to his father and grandfather—was that people were promoted and put into positions based on merit as opposed to solely political reliability. You had to be politically reliable for Kim Jong Un but you also had to have merit. He moved masses of people throughout the military, throughout industry, and within the WMD program. He wanted people who had actually produced. There are a lot of technocrats in positions of power now, where in the past it was more political. Kim is resource-limited and that presents a challenge. What he’s trying to do is maximize his capability as much as possible by putting the right people in the right place and focusing resources—financial and industrial—the right locations.

FP: It seems like he’s played a difficult hand very well.

JB: Absolutely. What’s made him very effective is that he has a better understanding of the West than his father or grandfather. And let’s face it, the world is changing. We have a lot of young people with newer ideas, newer views of the world. And that’s not just in the United States, that’s in Asia and throughout the world. Because he’s of that generation, he has a certain understanding of how they think.

FP: A couple decades ago, the kind of overhead imagery analysis you are doing would have been the exclusive provenance in the United States of a set of three-letter agencies. How significant do you think the gap is between the overhead imagery analysis being done in the public sphere and what’s happening behind closed doors in the classified world?

JB: There is little doubt that the collection capabilities of the United States and our allies are phenomenal. I mean in every aspect that we can tell at the unclassified level, the classified methods and systems of collection and protection of intelligence are truly phenomenal. It’s the interpretation, and the decision-making at the policy level based upon that, that’s a challenge. With all that said, we are still limited in many ways. North Korea is a tough target to understand. You can’t look inside a tunnel using satellite images. You don’t know what the intentions are. You need human intelligence for that. And North Korea presents a real challenge.

The major governments have all-source capabilities. We are trying to do the same thing, but at a micro level. We are trying to do that to inform the citizens of the United States and the world. Any democratic or democratic-leaning government is dependent upon the will of its people, and the will of the people is informed by information. It’s our hope to provide the best information we can.

FP: What was the methodology of the study?

JB: We obtain information of certain locations or certain activity in North Korea. What I do then is take that information, pull it together, try to disambiguate names, concepts, places, and ideas into a basic format, and then I try to put it in chronological order. I have a large, large collection of declassified intelligence reports that I then review. I look online at available declassified intelligence and news reports. I interview defectors. A lot of defectors are actually really poor sources. They might give you a general idea that is filled in by other sources, but a lot of their information is often incorrect or misunderstood. I speak with officials, both here and abroad, and I come to an understanding. Then I take satellite imagery and see if that matches understanding and the information I’ve received. Then, I piece the story together and see if it makes sense. Then I hand it out to friends and colleagues and say, “What’s wrong with it?” I believe that constructive criticism is invaluable in the production of any report that I produce.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll

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