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To measure the prowess of North Korean missiles, researchers spy with open-source clues

To measure the prowess of North Korean missiles, researchers spy with open-source clues


JUDY WOODRUFF: Over the last two weeks, Miles
O’Brien has taken us on a tour of what’s publicly known about North Korea’s nuclear weapons
program. In the third and final part of his series,
Miles looks at how those bombs might be delivered. Tonight, on the Leading Edge of science, the
sleuths searching through open-source clues to North Korea’s fast-developing missile program. MILES O’BRIEN: North Korean missiles are flying
much farther and much more frequently since Kim Jong-un became supreme leader in 2011. He has reigned over more than 80 launches
so far. The outside world watches warily with a network
of early warning radar, sensors and satellites that track the missiles in real time to be
sure they are indeed tests. Once the basic data is released by NORAD,
the sleuthing work begins for people like Jeffrey Lewis. JEFFREY LEWIS, Director, East Asian Nonproliferation
Program, Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey: We looked at open-source
data sets of surface-to-air missile sites. We can usually add quite a bit of detail because
we can model the missile and we can usually find the precise launch location using photographs. MILES O’BRIEN: Lewis is director of the East
Asian Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. He and his team look long and hard at the
images released by the regime. JEFFREY LEWIS: Every time the North Koreans
conduct a missile launch, we try to figure out where it happened. We take all the pictures that they released
and we try to what we call geolocate them. We’re able to see where the launch occurred,
and we are even able to tell where Kim Jong-un was standing when he watched it. MILES O’BRIEN: Lewis and his team are dialed
into a global network of armchair analysts on a similar mission. Marco Langbroek is a longtime amateur satellite
tracker and blogger based in the Netherlands. MARCO LANGBROEK, Satellite Tracker: The end
result of all these measurements is that you have a very nice calibration of what directions
is where on the horizon. MILES O’BRIEN: He gave me a fascinating glimpse
into a realm that sounds like an oxymoron, open-source spying. The North Koreans released these images of
their last and largest missile test of a Hwasong-15 in November of 2017. Langbroek spent a lot of time charting the
stars in these images. MARCO LANGBROEK: We can build a timeline of
events in the moment this truck arrives, starts to erect its missile and up to launch. MILES O’BRIEN: Based on this, Langbroek estimates
it took two hours for the North Koreans to launch the Hwasong-15. Langbroek knows the location of those buildings
thanks to Lewis and his team. It all began with a 13-second video showing
Kim Jong-un’s father and predecessor, Kim Jong Il, in a building with some Nodong missiles
in the early 2000s. JEFFREY LEWIS: It has these very unusual windows
along the back and the side and in the roof. And we thought, if we know where the windows
are, then we can model the inside of the building, use that to model the outside of the building. And then, if we know approximately where to
look, we can find this thing in a satellite photograph. MILES O’BRIEN: They made a 3-D model of the
building and the missile-carrying truck based on the images, and homed in on their quarry. JEFFREY LEWIS: And so there it is. You can see it’s exactly the building that
we imagined. And you can see the reason that they added
the big skylight was precisely so that the vehicle would fit in and that they could lift
the missile all the way up. MILES O’BRIEN: Similar techniques can also
give outsiders an inkling on how successful a missile test is. MARCO LANGBROEK: What you want to do is somehow
correct for this distortion. MILES O’BRIEN: Langbroek found this image
of Kim Jong-un very telling. The map evidently shows the intended trajectory
of the missile. MARCO LANGBROEK: You can compare whether what
they meant to do with their launch actually matches what the rocket really did. MILES O’BRIEN: He uses software that corrects
the distortions caused by the perspective of the camera. He compares the red line on the map with trajectories
of the tests released by Western military sources. Doing all of this tells you pretty much they
had a successful test, I guess, right? MARCO LANGBROEK: Yes. And what it basically shows that if they do
the best, they can actually aim their missiles quite well, which, of course, important in
a real war situation. MILES O’BRIEN: So far, the North Koreans have
tested their large missiles on highly elliptical suborbital flights. Flatten out the arc and a Hwasong-15 can reach
any location in the continental U.S. JEFFREY LEWIS: This is a model of the Hwasong-12. This is the missile that was being lifted
by the crane. MILES O’BRIEN: Lewis also measures the prowess
of North Korean missiles by timing their acceleration off the launch pad. JEFFREY LEWIS: If you know how heavy the thing
is and how quickly it is being pushed, you know how much power is being used to push
it. So, we have been able to estimate the strength
of the North Korean engines and, as it turns out, we get exactly the same number as the
leaked U.S. intelligence community estimate. MILES O’BRIEN: They sussed out its weight
by looking at these images of Kim Jong-un watching launch preps for a Hwasong-12. The key? A logo of a Japanese company on the crane. JEFFREY LEWIS: And so by modeling the building
and the missile and the crane, we were able to figure out how far the arm was extended,
the angle that the arm was at. And then we could look at the specifications
for this particular commercial crane and figure out approximately how much the missile weighed. When we did the crane analysis, one of the
things we discovered is that North Korea’s missiles were more advanced than we thought,
that the missile itself was still very strong, but much lighter than we expected. MILES O’BRIEN: Lewis believes the North Koreans
have the technology and knowledge to mill so called isogrid pieces like this. They are as strong as a solid piece of metal,
but much lighter. JEFFREY LEWIS: This is hard to do unless you
have modern computer, numerically controlled machine tools, and that’s precisely what Kim
Jong-un was showing us in that building, was that they have the capability to do this sort
of thing. MILES O’BRIEN: But they also have the capability
to doctor images. Lewis discovered Kim Jong-un’s ears are often
Photoshopped. And remember that star field Marco Langbroek
analyzed? A later image from the same vantage point
of the launch itself shows stars that would be behind the camera. MARCO LANGBROEK: The star backgrounds are
dramatically different, because here it shows Orion, and here it shows a part of Andromeda
with Andromeda Galaxy over here, and these are completely different parts of the sky. This is in the south-southwest, and this actually
in the northwest. So, that’s not possible. They should show the sky background, but they
don’t. MILES O’BRIEN: What would be the reasons to
do that? MARCO LANGBROEK: I think it’s simply for aesthetics. They wanted very nice propaganda pictures. And, of course, what’s more beautiful as propaganda
than having your ICBM soar into a star-spangled sky? It’s aesthetics. MILES O’BRIEN: But you have to wonder why
they tip their hand as much as they do? JEFFREY LEWIS: If I were the North Koreans
one thing I might do is just stop all of this propaganda altogether. But then they lose the deterrent value, right? They lose the threat, because, if you can’t
see it, then you don’t know it’s real. So, I think we’re both locked in this game
where they want to tell us some things and not others, and our job is to figure out what
those other things they don’t want to tell us are. MILES O’BRIEN: Until technology made all this
possible, this job fell in the realm the professional spies, shared only with policy-makers that
have a security clearances. SIEGFRIED HECKER, Former Director, Los Alamos
National Laboratory: This was actually my very first trip. MILES O’BRIEN: Nuclear physicist Sig Hecker
is one of those people. He ran the Los Alamos National Laboratory
from 1986 through 1997. He supports the open-source sleuthing. SIEGFRIED HECKER: The open-source informs
the public. And what’s actually important, of course,
when you do open-source, you do get more eyes on the problem, more people to think about
it, more people who think in ways that perhaps and North Koreans might think that than what
we have in our government. MILES O’BRIEN: In fact, Marco Langbroek says
his Web site is routinely visited by the CIA, and Jeffrey Lewis and his team get invitations
to brief government analysts. So what is the takeaway for the concerned
public? Even though North Korea has not proven it
has a weapon small and robust enough to survive the fiery reentry into the atmosphere, it
can launch a missile with enough payload to carry a bomb to any American city. For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Miles O’Brien. JUDY WOODRUFF: You can watch all three of
Miles O’Brien’s reports on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities online at PBS.org/NewsHour.


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