Entornointeligente.com / When workers at North Koreaâs Sohae rocket facility began rebuilding the dormant siteâs launch pad and engine test stand this month, U.S. spy satellites orbiting overhead quickly detected the construction.
So did Joe Bermudez, a freelance North Korea military expert who keeps close tabs on unclassified overhead photos of the countryâs scattered missile and nuclear weapons facilities.
Advertisement Unlike U.S. intelligence agencies, Bermudez immediately went public.
“North Korea is pursuing a rapid rebuilding of the long-range rocket site at Sohae,” Bermudez and Victor Cha, a former U.S. national security council official, warned in a March 5 analysis published by a Washington think tank that included satellite images of the hilly launch site near North Koreaâs border with China.
The analysts suggested that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un might be moving toward resuming ballistic missile tests only days after the collapse of President Trumpâs summit with Kim in Hanoi — a possible blow to Trumpâs efforts to persuade Kim to abandon his missile and nuclear weapons programs.
It also showed how the burgeoning availability of high-resolution commercial satellite photos of North Korea and other isolated global hot spots has challenged the monopoly that U.S. intelligence agencies long held on satellite imagery analysis.
“Activity is evident at the vertical engine test stand and the launch padâs rail-mounted rocket transfer structure,” Bermudez and Cha wrote. “The rebuilding activities at Sohae demonstrate how quickly North Korea can easily render reversible any steps taken towards scrapping its WMD program,” referring to weapons of mass destruction.
Senior U.S. officials involved in the negotiations with North Korea can barely contain their disdain for the unofficial analysis, viewing it as overly pessimistic and potentially disruptive to their efforts.
“The tendency to reach these snap conclusions is, in my view, a little bit hasty,” Steve Biegun, the special U.S. envoy for North Korea, said at a Washington conference Monday.
“We take very seriously the reports that weâve seen about whatâs happening at Sohae,” he added. “We donât need to depend upon commercial satellite photography.”
John Bolton, Trumpâs national security advisor , similarly dismissed recent overhead images showing rail cars and other activity at Sanumdon, a facility near Pyongyang where North Korea has assembled some of its intercontinental ballistic missiles and satellite-launching rockets.
“I donât really want to get into speculation about what theyâre doing,” he told ABCâs “This Week” on March 10.
No one suggests the analysts are endangering national security. But evidence that Kimâs government is continuing its missile and nuclear weapons development deepens questions about whether Trump is engaged in a fruitless diplomatic initiative.
Pyongyang has not launched a ballistic missile or tested a nuclear device since before the first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore last June, a fact Trump touts as one of the accomplishments of his high-level engagement with Kim.
U.S. intelligence agencies that study the reclusive North Korean regime use communication intercepts, defector reports, reconnaissance flights and other sources. Sophisticated spy satellites transmit classified images said to be substantially more detailed than those publicly available.
That enables them to keep surveillance on dozens of sites where the regime is believed to be working on nuclear weapons or long-range missile components.
Advertisement U.S. intelligence officials say Kim is unlikely to surrender his nuclear stockpile or long-range missiles, seeing them as a guarantee of regime survival.
But a cottage industry of U.S. academic groups, nonproliferation groups and Korea experts are buying the latest commercial satellite shots to look for their own evidence that Pyongyang is secretly advancing its weapons work while talking peace with Trump.
In the competitive world of Washington think tanks, satellite photos that appear to offer insight into North Koreaâs next move — and that challenge the administrationâs version of events — generate buzz, news stories and even donations from people and foreign governments who see North Korea as a threat.
The most active player in this parallel intelligence-gathering universe is the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy research organization that employs Bermudez as its “senior fellow for imagery analysis” and that issues frequent — sometimes breathless — reports using overhead imagery.
Bermudez has spent decades examining Pyongyangâs secret missile and weapons programs, including as senior analyst for DigitalGlobe, a Colorado-based satellite imagery company whose primary customer is the U.S. intelligence community.
Before signing on with CSIS, the Colorado-based analyst worked with 38 North, another nonprofit research group and website focused on North Korea that regularly issues its own reports on overhead imagery of Pyongyangâs missile and nuclear sites.
“I got sucked into North Korea and never have been able to get out,” said Bermudez, who refuses to say whether he formerly worked for a U.S. spy agency.
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the Defense Department entity that collects and analyzes satellite imagery, has given Bermudez and a handful of other analysts access to its vast trove of unclassified North Korea imagery in return for their analysis on obscure topics.
His report on rail shipments of iron ore from the North Korean city of Wonsan was posted on the agencyâs public website in November, part of a year-old NGA program to enlist outside experts to do unclassified research that its own analysts donât have time to do.
But Bermudezâs work on North Koreaâs missile and nuclear programs gets the most attention.
After their first report on the new construction at Sohae, Bermudez and Cha issued new pictures of the launch site two days later, labeling the structures and noting what had changed since the satellite last had passed overhead.
“Commercial satellite imagery acquired March 6, 2019 â¦ shows that North Korea has essentially completed the rebuilding of both the rail-mounted transfer/processing structure on the launch pad and the vertical engine at the Sohae Launch Facility,” they wrote.
That “could indicate deliberate preparations to test rocket engines again,” they added.
Advertisement Other outside analysts say Bermudez and Cha sometimes push their conclusions too far, extrapolating from limited information on the images what Kimâs next move may be.
Their work sometimes is a target for rivals, including 38 North, which brought on two new former U.S. government imagery analysts after Bermudez left for CSIS.
“Itâs really easy to abuse using satellite images,” said Jenny Town, a research analyst at 38 North. “In the CSIS stuff, the analysis is good, but some of the conclusions are pretty far-reaching.”
When 38 North made public its own report on Sohae on March 13, it avoided speculating about what the construction at the site might indicate about Kimâs intentions.
“Recent commercial satellite imagery of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station shows no changes to the launch pad or engine test stand between March 8 and March 13,” Town and the two former U.S. government imagery analysts concluded.
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LINK ORIGINAL: Latimes