The Interpreter: A brief guide to the real-life wizardry of North Korea analysts

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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

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Welcome to the Interpreter newsletter, by Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, who write a column by the same name.
On our minds this week: the real-life wizards who help the outside world track and understand North Korea’s weapons programs.
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Korean Central News Agency
Korean Central News Agency Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, overseeing a missile test from a location he intended to be secret but did not remain that way.
How North Korea Analysts Uncover the Hermit Kingdom’s Secrets
We’d like to tell you a story of real-life wizardry from one of our favorite groups of real-life wizards: open-source North Korea analysts.
David Schmerler works at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, where he and others use publicly available information to study North Korea’s politics and weapons programs. He also possesses fearsome powers.
The story we wish to recount occurred in July 2016, when North Korea tested three medium-range ballistic missiles from an undisclosed location.
The day after the July 19 test, the government of North Korea released images of Kim Jong-un, the country’s leader, overseeing the test from the field. The test was intended, the state news media said, to practice for “pre-emptive strikes at ports and airfields in the operational theater in South Korea,” where American troops would arrive in case of a war.
Mr. Schmerler wanted to see if he could use the handful of photos to identify the location of the test. Locating launch locations could help to deter or stop those launches in case of a war, potentially helping to save millions of lives. Tracking Mr. Kim’s precise location, particularly in war scenarios, could be useful in all sorts of ways. And Mr. Schmerler is just nosey like that.
But he faced a problem: Mr. Kim had overseen the test from an outdoor tent covered in mesh netting that blocked out any details that could be helpful in determining the location.
Mr. Schmerler’s colleagues told us they suspected, though could not prove, that this mesh netting was a response to their past efforts to track and publish Mr. Kim’s whereabouts. His movements are a closely guarded secret, as North Korea fears that South Korea or the United States could try to target Mr. Kim in a conflict.
This is when Mr. Schmerler began to employ the dark magic of open-source analysis. He saw two details in the photos that revealed more than North Korea had intended. First was a single bit of yellow metal gleaming behind the mesh netting, which Mr. Schmerler thought could be from the guardrails along the tunnels on North Korea’s sole national highway:
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Mr. Schmerler confirmed his theory — and got a second datapoint on the location — from another photo from the test launch showing Mr. Kim watching the missiles sail over the horizon. The second photo showed hedgerows often planted along North Korea’s highway.
From there, he identified two bits of foliage that also appeared in a separate video of the missile test released by the state news media, allowing him to estimate Mr. Kim’s distance from the launch:
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The next step is the one that really blows our minds. Mr. Schmerler found a 2015 YouTube video shot from what appears to be a tourist bus as it cruises along that very highway.
There is some tourism in the country, most of it from China, and the video may have been taken by a bored visitor, but it was an open-source gold mine:
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This video gave Mr. Schmerler a set of images of tunnels and nearby hedges and foliage that he could use to match the images of Mr. Kim. It also showed the sequence of the tunnels along the highway, allowing him to map them.
Putting these pieces together, Mr. Schmerler was able to determine the specific coordinates, down to a few feet, of the missile launch and the tent from which Mr. Kim oversaw it  — a closely guarded state secret that Mr. Schmerler posted on Twitter within a few hours of the test.
When Mr. Schmerler recounted this story to us a few months ago, for an article on the messages hidden in North Korean propaganda photos, he didn’t  brag. He simply described the technical steps he had taken. His colleague, Jeffrey Lewis, bragged on his behalf, telling us, “This is pretty cool.”
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How Are We Doing?

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Quote of the Day
Katherine J. Cramer, a political scientist who studies populism, as quoted in a Washington Monthly article by Lee Drutman, also a political scientist:
My fear is that democracy will always tend toward a politics of resentment, in which savvy politicians figure out ways to amass coalitions by tapping into our deepest and most salient social divides: race, class, culture, and place.”
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What We’re Reading
• Galina Zapryanova and Anders Christiansen, writing for Gallup, find evidence that when people hold “low trust in government and low or static expectations for their future lives,” support for populist politics tends to surge. This should add clarity to the never-ending debate over whether populism is driven by “economic anxiety” or racial resentment. It can correlate with declining economic prospects or pre-existing racial animus, but this research suggests it’s more likely driven by, for example, a racial or religious group facing a declining level of privilege.
• A fascinating academic study on the Sicilian economic conditions that gave rise to the mafia. (Max, about to vacation in Sicily, was particularly interested.) The journalist Graeme Wood summarized it well on Twitter: “The Sicilian mafia started because everyone wanted citrus all at once.”
• Alex Bollfrass at the Wilson Center summarizes historians’ never-ending debate over whether or not West Germany secretly sought nuclear weapons in the 1950s and ’60s, and what this question tells us about the world today. Mr. Bollfrass coins a fun term (“strategic gossip”) and cites the theory that early Soviet expansionism — and, to some degree, the Cold War itself — were driven by Soviet fears of a German bomb.
Our Latest
Trucks carried soldiers last week through central Pyongyang as the North Korean capital prepared for a parade marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, the country's founding father, pictured in the upper-center at left along with Kim Jong-il, his son.

Damir Sagolj/Reuters
The Interpreter
Fearing losing their legitimacy, North Korea’s leaders created a permanent state of near-war, and an effective asymmetrical power dynamic.

The Interpreter
A goal for the nation? A program sophisticated enough to one day fire a guaranteed nuclear retaliation in any war, even against the United States.

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The number of Afghan women seeking divorce is rising, but many are then met with harassment and difficulties in their daily lives.

Women in India's Bihar State marching to the cornfield where they had discovered illegal moonshine.

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The women of Bihar State, one of India’s poorest, have enthusiastically welcomed a strict prohibition law, and often take matters into their own hands.

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