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Story Publication logo February 27, 2019

How Civilian Firms Fact-Check North Korea’s Denuclearization Efforts

Locals in Pyongyang. Image by LMspencer / North Korea, 2016.

The North Korean underground railroad is credited with saving thousands of lives over the last two...

Trump and Kim shaking hands in the summit room during the DPRK-USA Singapore Summit. Image by Shealah Craighead/Wikimedia Commons. Singapore, 2018.
Trump and Kim shaking hands in the summit room during the DPRK-USA Singapore Summit. Image by Shealah Craighead/Wikimedia Commons. Singapore, 2018.

During eight and a half months of negotiations with North Korea, the White House has maintained that its "goal is to achieve the final, fully verified denuclearization of the DPRK as Chairman Kim committed to in Singapore." The Trump Administration has touted small victories, such as the fact that North Korea has not conducted any new missile or nuclear tests, and that several nuclear-testing facilities have been partially or fully decommissioned. When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited North Korea in October, 2018, North Korea pledged to destroy all of its nuclear-enrichment facilities, according to Stephen Biegun, the United States Special Representative for North Korea. (North Korea never confirmed this.) At the end of January, as preparations for a second summit, to be held on Wednesday and Thursday, ramped up, Trump said, "We've made tremendous progress with North Korea." On Sunday morning, he tweeted, "I will be leaving for Hanoi, Vietnam, early tomorrow for a Summit with Kim Jong Un of North Korea, where we both expect a continuation of the progress made at first Summit in Singapore. Denuclearization?"

In the past, North Korea's isolation might have allowed the Administration to present an unchallenged narrative. But, as commercial satellite photography has become significantly cheaper and more powerful—to the point that it rivals that of intelligence agencies—civilian experts have been able to monitor North Korea's nuclear program. What they are seeing differs dramatically from what the Administration has been saying.

Jeffrey Lewis, a director at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, leads a team that uses satellite imagery to surveil North Korea's nuclear program. Lewis became interested in fact-checking government intelligence after the George W. Bush Administration misled the American public and much of the international community about Saddam Hussein's capacity to produce a nuclear weapon. "Only U.S. intel got to have an opinion on things like how many nukes a foreign country had," he said. "We were excited to take techniques from them and do the same kind of analyses for the public record." Businesses typically turn to satellite-imaging companies for activities like counting cars in competitors' parking lots or mapping demolitions of houses in developing neighborhoods. For Lewis, they have provided daily images of every inch of North Korea at a resolution of about three metres, and less frequent images with a resolution of about a foot.

In July, 2018, when an intelligence source tipped off the Washington Post that North Korea was continuing to manufacture missiles, Joby Warrick, a Post reporter, turned to Lewis for independent confirmation. Lewis's team identified the factory in question and used historical commercial-satellite imagery to rewind the clock. They discovered images of supply trucks, including bright red trailers that had traditionally been used to transport intercontinental ballistic missiles, travelling in and out of the facility. By matching details from North Korean media photos with those of satellite images, they were also able to confirm that it was one of the missile factories where Kim had, in recent years, personally examined missiles and launch vehicles. As Lewis told Warrick, the facility "is not dead, by any stretch of the imagination."

In November, 2018, while the Trump Administration was touting recent steps to dismantle a well-known rocket-test stand, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (C.S.I.S.) published satellite images showing that North Korea had been making improvements at 16 hidden ballistic-missile bases. "Work is continuing," Victor Cha, the group's Korea chair, told the New York Times in an article that suggested North Korea was engaged in a "great deception." "The existence of the ballistic missile bases," the Times wrote, "contradicts Mr. Trump's assertion that his landmark diplomacy is leading to the elimination of a nuclear and missile program."

In response to the article, the Trump Administration declared that there was no "deception," as it had long known about the bases, and other commentators pointed out that North Korea had never promised to immediately give up its I.C.B.M.s—the Singapore declaration only included a commitment to "work toward" that goal. Some suggested that Cha, who had been a candidate for Ambassador to South Korea before disagreeing with Trump over how to handle Kim Jong Un, had an axe to grind. According to Cha, people aligned with the Administration accused C.S.I.S. of trying to "submarine" negotiations over the second summit that were taking place around that time. The timing, he explained, had been coincidental. But the goal of such reports, he said, "is to show the general public that there are scores of missile bases harboring I.C.B.M.s, and to influence opinion leaders, journalists, members of Congress, and others to take action about them." The Administration, he pointed out, had never previously acknowledged the existence of these bases, and instead framed its negotiations around other less-threatening assets. The work of C.S.I.S., Cha said, is "certainly pushing back against the President's narrative that he has already solved this. There's other things we should be negotiating over besides one rocket test stand."

The American intelligence community has also found ways to publicize disagreements with the President. Two weeks after the first summit, NBC reported that classified intelligence assessments had found that North Korea was increasing its production of weapons-grade nuclear fuel. The regime, according to a dozen anonymous officials, was trying to extract concessions from Trump while clinging to its nukes. Other intelligence sources soon leaked evidence that showed senior North Korean officials discussing how to deceive the U.S. by publicly disposing of only a small number of warheads. In January, at the annual worldwide threat assessment before the U.S. Senate, the intelligence chiefs warned that North Korea was not willing to denuclearize. "We currently assess that North Korea will seek to retain its W.M.D. capabilities," Dan Coats, the director of National Intelligence, said, "and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capability because its leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival." As recently as Saturday, the Washington Post reported that American and North Korean negotiators had yet to agree on the definition of "denuclearization" to be negotiated at the summit, as the term has taken on a number of meanings during two decades of negotiations.

Siegfried Hecker, a senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, who personally examined some of North Korea's nuclear facilities about a decade ago, has a different interpretation of the available data. In a report updated in February, Hecker, who has advised Trump's Special Representative to North Korea, found that, although North Korea has "continued to operate and, in some cases, expand the nuclear weapons complex infrastructure," the over-all situation on the peninsula has greatly improved. "I am hopeful about the summit," he said. Although North Korea has test-launched three long-range missiles that could possibly strike the United States, Hecker suggested that "North Korea has not been able to perform enough tests of long-range missiles or nuclear weapons in order to deliver a warhead to the United States." Among other things, he explained, North Korea still needs to perfect a vehicle to keep its warheads from disintegrating upon reëntry into the atmosphere. He suggested that if Trump won an agreement to permanently end such testing and then roll back the nuclear program, Kim might never achieve an arsenal capable of reliably threatening the United States. "I don't know if they will give up nuclear weapons," Hecker said, "but we've got to see if they will take additional positive concrete steps toward denuclearization."

The day before leaving for Asia, Trump tweeted, "So funny to watch people who have failed for years, they got NOTHING, telling me how to negotiate with North Korea. But thanks anyway!" As the President arrived in Vietnam on Tuesday, Vox reported that the outlines of a tentative deal had been reached by the American and North Korean advance teams: both sides will declare an official end to the Korean War, which has technically been ongoing since 1950, and North Korea will stop production of bomb-making materials at its aging Yongbyon nuclear complex in return for the United States asking the United Nations to ease some sanctions. (Asked for his opinion on the deal, Cha told me, "Terrible.") Regardless of whatever final declaration does come out of the summit, and whatever steps toward denuclearization North Korea actually takes, one thing is certain: Trump will tout the events as a great victory. And observers like Cha, Hecker, and Lewis will be watching from the sky to see whether Trump's rhetoric matches the reality on the ground. "I worry that we're going to pay for gestures that mimic disarmament but that don't fundamentally change the nuclear or human-rights situations," Lewis, the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies director, said, and "which are really just buying good news stories for Trump."


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