Advancements in satellite technology are making it easier for an elite research team to track North Korea’s missiles, nukes, and even the young dictator Kim Jong Un.
North Korea is advancing both its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs at an accelerated pace. The North launched its tenth ballistic missile this year, a new medium long-range surface-to-surface weapon, Sunday. North Korea has also been carrying out preparation work at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site for an eventual sixth nuclear test.
Data from commercial satellites make it easier for leading experts in the field to analyze North Korea’s development of weapons of mass destruction and the means to use them against another country. Planet Labs, a San Francisco imaging start-up, launched a cluster of shoebox-sized satellites earlier this year, according to Vice News. The satellites photograph the Earth’s surface in its entirety every 24 hours, and the satellite images aid top researchers.
“We started taking pictures of Kim Jong Un and identifying where he was,” explains Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program in the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, revealed in an HBO special. “The North Koreans got really annoyed by that. We could tell because they started putting up barriers behind him so we couldn’t see where he was.”
North Korea knows it being watched.
In one instance, the team watched Kim Jong Un watch a missile test from a mountain. Using satellite imagery, the team was able to determine that the young despot observed the test from a ski resort in Masikryong. “That is part of a pattern we’ve noticed. Kim Jong Un likes to watch missile tests from really posh places,” Lewis told Vice reporters.
Last October, North Korea conducted two failed missile tests, believed by U.S. intelligence to be Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Using data from Planet Labs, Lewis and his colleagues were able to determine that burn scars were much larger than those created by past failed missile tests, leading them to conclude that the tests might have been of a KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missile, or possibly even the Hwasong-12 North Korea tested last Sunday.
On multiple occasions, researchers have been able to determine the exact location of North Korea’s missile tests using satellite imagery and propaganda photos.
Using satellite imagery and seismic data, Lewis and the other members of the his team created a 3D model of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. They discovered that the facility lines up with certain U.S. testing facilities, suggesting that North Korea may be aware of or even learned from publicly-available data on U.S. nuclear testing.
The research that has been done using satellite images reveals information about North Korea’s nuclear testing capabilities.
“One thing a model like this allows you to do is see what the biggest possible explosion they could conduct is,” Lewis explained, “That is sort of about 350 kilotons, which is 10 to 20 times larger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.” In March, the research site 38 North concluded that North Korea could potentially test a nuclear bomb with an explosive yield as high as 282 kilotons.
The North is unlikely to test a bomb that big in the near future, as nuclear testing is expected to follow a standard pattern of progression, wherein the next blast will be slightly larger than the previous one.
Lewis told Vice reporters that he expects more North Korean nuclear testing. “Based on the tunnels that they’re building and the tunnels that they’ve used, that they plan to conduct a lot of nuclear tests.”
Lewis expects one to two nuclear tests per year for the foreseeable future, but he cautions North Korea watchers against jumping to conclusions, explaining that an active nuclear test site does not necessarily indicate a test is imminent.
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