Jeffrey LewisSnooping on Denuclearization

This post is co-authored with David Schmerler.


One of the reason we like OSINT, especially satellite images, is that we can actually see things that are happening. Staring at satellite images is hardly a perfect way of knowing, but it seems more reliable to us than some of the, er, reporting that we are seeing.

There are two sites where we’ve seen big changes recently — big changes that send contradictory messages.  One of them was graciously written up by Anna Fifield in the Washington Post. The the other doesn’t have a home yet. But together, we think they are really interesting.  Do you want the good news or the bad news first?



The good news!  Ok!  North Korea does appear to be getting ready to “close” its nuclear test site.  Kim Jong Un has publicly announced the impending closure of the site, adding in private meetings that journalists and experts may be invited.

Thanks to our friends at Planet, we can see the North Koreans are starting to take down buildings at the site, presumably in preparation for the visit.

I would imagine that the plan is to sanitize the site to remove any sensitive information about the state of North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, then invite in the journalists and experts to confirm that, yes, the site is now a ghost-town.  That’s what France did with the “anciennes installations” at Pierrelatte et Marcoule.

As I have noted, the North Korean nuclear test site comprised horizontal tunnels, rather than vertical shafts.  That means any decommissioning will be more like the tunnel sealing at Degelen in Kazakhstan rather than filling the shafts at the Kalahari site in South Africa — with the attendent limitations. [Update: North Korea has now described the technical measures it will take: “Dismantlement of the nuclear test ground will be done in the following sequence-making all tunnels of the test ground collapse by explosion; completely blocking entries; removing all observation facilities, research institutes and structures of guard units on the ground.”]

And I don’t suppose I need to point out that the mountain did not collapse, although it did subside and the cavity created by the most recent test did collapse almost immediately afterwards.  But that doesn’t mean the tunnels in the mountain are unusable — to say nothing of the other two tunnel complexes under other mountains at the site.  Or, as Kim himself reportedly said, ““Some say that we are terminating facilities that are not functioning, but you will see that we have two more tunnels that are bigger than the existing ones and that they are in good condition.”



Now the bad news.  Over at Pyongsong, however, North Korea has put up a structure that we associate with the production or modification of launchers for the Hwasong-15.  Kim Jong Un promised to stop testing ICBMs, but he didn’t promise to stop making them — or the massive vehicles that carry them.

That structure, shown here in the snowy relief of January, is a very tall structure that allows North Korean workers to raise the arm that erects the missile all the way — something that the main building isn’t tall enough for. We saw this thing at Pyongsong for the first time a few days before the November 2017 test of the Hwasong-15 ICBM.  (The vehicle is backing into the checkout structure.)

North Korea took the structure down after the test, but then put it back up again.

(An aside: On January 2, there was a slight panic when David Martin reported that “North Korea appears to be in the early stages of a launch cycle for another intercontinental ballistic missile test…” Ankit Panda managed to get someone to explain that it was just a 9-axel TEL being moved between buildings.  The overhead coverage isn’t great, but it looks like the checkout structure was taken down and reassembled in this period — its not visible on January 5, but back on January 9.  Our working hypothesis is that it is associated with the manufacture or modification of Hwasong-15 launchers and the disappearance and reappearance were probably linked to what prompted the test scare.)

Now you may ask yourself, Self, why does North Korea use a temporary structure for this purpose?  We don’t know. At other sites, the structure is permanent.  Anyway, the damn thing went back down again in March and stayed down — until a couple of weeks ago.  Now, it’s back!

From left to right: April 21, April 26, April 28 and April 29. © 2018 Planet Labs, inc. cc-by-sa 4.0

So, although North Korea does seem to be getting ready to invite foreign delegations to the nuclear test site, it also appears to be continuing the expansion of the its ICBM force.  Of course, its possible the North Koreans are just jerking our collective chain.  That’s certainly how we feel sometimes.  Kim Jong Un giveth, and Kim Jong Un taketh away.

So what’s it all mean?

Well, its hard to escape the conclusion that Kim is doing precisely what he has said publicly, rather than the things he is sometimes reported to have said.  Which is hardly a startling insight.  You might even say it was common sense, if that sense were common throughout the news coverage we’ve read so far.