Some images might look silly, but they can be rich with insights into the country’s military and politics. By using high-tech forensics and traditional detective work, analysts and intelligence agencies can use photos to track North Korea’s internal politics and expanding weapons programs with stunning granularity.
Several experts walked us through a photo of Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader, unveiling what he claimed was a new nuclear device. But the image, from March 2016, may show more than Kim intended: the possible range of the missile behind him, his relationship with the military, even his precise location.
— The Bomb
North Korea calls the object in the photo its first miniaturized nuclear warhead, small enough to fit on a missile. Analysts call it the disco ball.
Jeffrey Lewis, an analyst at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, used the photo to estimate the device’s size, from which he deduced its weight — a few hundred kilograms — and its destructive yield, about 20 kilotons, roughly equivalent to the atomic bombs that the United States dropped on Japan.
But more important than yield was its small size — about 60 centimetres in diameter — which appears to match North Korea’s claim that it can fit on their long-range missiles, a major leap forward for the country’s nuclear prowess.
Analysts are unsure about a metal plug in the photo. It could be a routine component to trigger detonation or it could be used to inject gas, making the device more efficient. This would allow North Korea to build more warheads out of limited plutonium supplies, multiplying the size of its arsenal.
There’s also disagreement over a nozzle. Some suspect it’s a safety feature used to enter the nuclear “pit” just before detonation, others say it could be used to arm the warhead. Analysts hope new images will emerge that will help them solve these riddles.
— The Outfit
Scholars of North Korean state media recognize Kim’s jacket in the photo from official portrayals of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, the nation’s founding leader. The elder Kim is heavily celebrated in state media and closely associated with the Korean War. Kim Jong Un, by borrowing his coat, is sending a message that North Korea is again on a war footing.
Such details help scholars to understand how Kim Jong Un is constructing his legitimacy. By mimicking his grandfather, he is implicitly breaking with his father, Kim Jong Il, who tended to rule through institutions like the military and the Communist Party. Instead, Kim Jong Un is asserting himself as the center of all authority, as his grandfather did. This pose can help experts better understand the government’s internal dynamics and how it might behave.
— The Entourage
One thing that’s absent in the photo: military uniforms at an event to unveil a new military weapon. In a country where propaganda sets reality, and the political hierarchy can be life-or-death, such choices matter.
That’s why Michael Madden, an analyst, tracks appearances by North Korean officials. In the photo, he spotted civilian officials and two key military leaders: the head of the nuclear program and the head of missile forces, both in civilian clothing.
That sends a clear message: Kim Jong Un is asserting that he runs the nuclear weapons program personally, cutting out the usual chain of command. “This is not rule by the military anymore, this is rule by one man,” said Joshua Pollack, who edits the Nonproliferation Review.
The body language is also significant: Kim Jong Un is giving guidance as even top military officials dutifully take notes, a show of submission to his personal authority over this specific warhead.
— The Missile
Even a glimpse of an intercontinental missile in the background of the photo reveals important information. David Schmerler, also with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, noticed the white lettering, which is Korean for “support.” Missile airframes are fragile and so have to be rested where the frame is strongest — between the internal tanks.
By measuring the number and size of those tanks, Schmerler was able to effectively X-ray the missile’s interior and deduce information such as the type of fuel used. Altogether, this reveals that the missile is designed for a range of thousands of miles — enough to reach Washington, D.C., if the technology is perfected.
Melissa Hanham, also of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, is pairing these findings with a series of photos North Korea has released of rocket engine tests, some for the KN-08. Analysis of the flame from the engine, particularly its color, confirm it’s designed to be able to reach the East Coast of the United States one day.
— The Facility
North Korea did not name the location of the photo, but analysts figured it out by sorting through thousands of propaganda photos to identify clues.
They narrowed their search, in part, by examining photos where Kim Jong Un wore the same outfit, reasoning that his proclivity for wearing the same clothing over a stretch of time would help them spot patterns. (Pollack also said they can roughly date an undated photo by Kim Jong Un’s weight, which tends to fluctuate.)
That led them to an earlier photo of the missile facility, whose tiny architectural details and a banner matched those in the “disco ball” photo. Propaganda officials had not bothered to hide its location: The Chamjin missile factory just outside Pyongyang.
Lewis has been monitoring the facility ever since. He watches how and when it is used, looking for bursts in traffic or new construction. By tracking which facilities are expanded and which are neglected, he can infer the same of whichever program a facility houses.
Satellite photos show this facility getting a recent upgrade — which Lewis was able to see up close by finding a matching propaganda photo. Such glimpses give him a tactile feel for key weapons centers. He thinks he may even have spotted Kim Jong Un’s car.
These small observations add up, demonstrating that, as Pollack put it of North Korea’s nuclear development, “This is a deadly serious program.”
Hanham believes some details may have been deliberately revealed to demonstrate the country’s growing capabilities. Whereas most such images are doctored, if only to improve Kim Jong Un’s appearance, she noticed that this was conspicuously unretouched — perhaps a message to the foreign intelligence agencies who conduct such analyses.
“This is being offered as evidence. This is supposed to be proof,” she said. Whereas analysts had long doubted the country’s grandiose claims, she added, “2016 was about showing us all the capabilities that we had mocked.”