Spying on North Korea from Space

The world is belatedly discovering North Korea is a serious problem. Ever since the Hermit Kingdom’s ICBM test on July 4 there seems to be a flurry of commentary on the subject. Lay observers can be forgiven for joining this party late. For years North Korea has been treated like a geopolitical sideshow, the butt of jokes and the subject of silly movies. All the major participants share blame for the lack of seriousness. The US remained absorbed by the Middle East, China gingerly propped up the Kim dynasty, hoping to muddle along, and South Korean governments have failed to show constancy of purpose. Indeed, younger South Koreans seem to be curiously nonchalant about the possibility of a conflict in ways their elders are not.

As the US comes to grips with the perils on the Korean peninsula, decision makers across Asia from Beijing to Delhi to Hanoi will keep a close watch to gauge the depth of the American commitment to the region. The Korean standoff is situated at the centre of the primary engine of the global economy. It also straddles the geopolitical fault lines between two great powers and involves large armies, ICBMs and nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. In short, any war on the Korean peninsula will affect India and the wider region in ways that, say, the ongoing Syrian war does not.

In the coming weeks and months I hope to analyse the North Korean problem more closely over multiple blog entries. But I’ll start today with a story on the little satellites now hovering above Kim Jong-Un’s kingdom.

Tackling North Korea from Space

On July 6, David E. Sanger and William J. Broad of The New York Times broke a story about how the US is seeking creative solutions to improve its spy satellite coverage of North Korea– a crucial capability that will allow intelligence agencies to detect preparations for a missile launch.

‘The most intriguing solutions have come from Silicon Valley,’ according to the story, ‘where the Obama administration began investing in tiny, inexpensive civilian satellites developed to count cars in Target parking lots and monitor the growth of crops.‘

The first batch of these backpack-size satellites are scheduled to enter orbit late this year or early next year. Some will remain in orbit for less than two years, but together they could provide the ‘coverage necessary to execute a new military contingency plan called “Kill Chain.” It is the first step in a new strategy to use satellite imagery to identify North Korean launch sites, nuclear facilities and manufacturing capability and destroy them pre-emptively if a conflict seems imminent.’

In short, the new satellites are a small step towards building a credible counterforce capability that could be deployed against Kim Jong-Un’s nukes.

At present, barely a third of North Korea is under US satellite surveillance at any given time- an indication of the lack of seriousness that has thus far characterized America’s approach to the country.

Even worse, Kim Jong-Un’s military and rocket scientists have focused a great deal of their efforts on ensuring the survivability of the nuclear arsenal. North Korea’s ballistic missile technology is steadily shifting away from liquid propellants- with their cumbersome pre-launch ritual of fueling the rockets- to solid propellants, which allow them to be launched as soon as an order is given.

North Korea’s nuclear forces also use a vast network of underground facilities to move their crown jewels and employ highly mobile transporter erector launchers (TELs) to launch missiles.

The new miniature satellites address these problems in two ways. One, they will provide more comprehensive coverage, increasing the chances of early warning. Two, their radars will also be able to ‘detect changes in ground elevation that signal hidden tunnels, bunkers and even radioactive cavities left by nuclear blasts’.

Before concluding, I should also mention that nongovernmental organizations like the Center for Nonproliferation Studies already study North Korea’s nuclear testing facilities using images from commercial satellites that are no larger than a shoe box. While these satellites lack radars and cannot provide real time data, they’re one more effort at lifting the veil off Kim Jong-Un’s secretive kingdom.

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