NYT Coverage of Think-Tank Report Risks Credibility of Open-Source Research on North Korea
Viewpoint by Joshua H. Pollack
The writer is a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and editor of the Nonproliferation Review. This article first appeared on NKNews.Org on December 11, 2018.
NEW YORK | MONTEREY (IDN-INPS) – Along with the features of daily life that few of us could have anticipated a generation ago – smartphones, rent-a-scooters, Greek yogurt in every grocery store – something new has come to the world of think tanks and NGOs: the budding democratization of imagery intelligence.
Multiple companies now take photographs from space of effectively anywhere on the earth’s surface.
Their levels of resolution vary, but some could be compared to the best available to the superpowers during the late Cold War – or even better. DigitalGlobe now offers images as sharp as 30 cm in resolution, meaning that each pixel measures about one foot by one foot.
The sheer frequency of today’s commercial imagery coverage is without precedent. Multiple new sensors enter orbit seemingly every few months, constantly tightening the mesh of robot eyes that circle above the atmosphere, sleepless and lidless. One outfit, Planet, already captures a fresh daily view of every piece of ground, everywhere.
Imagery is also becoming more varied and powerful. New types of commercial sensors continue to appear, including a synthetic aperture radar from Airbus Defence and Space. This technology allows a sensor to peer through clouds–and even through some ceilings.
While all of these pictures are available for purchase online, governments, civil society, and the news media have barely begun to adapt to life in the global digital fishbowl. And at least so far, it turns out to be a mixed blessing that large, well-resourced intelligence agencies have lost their monopoly over certain forms of knowledge.
Open Source Intelligence
In my own area of specialty – weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear and missile programs – this change ought to come as a boon.
However strong the quality of classified analysis, its governmental consumers are also the overseers of its production, and have the privilege of deciding upon its selective public release.
The credibility of WMD intelligence in the eyes of the public has also been used and abused: after the ill-conceived, ill-fated invasion of Iraq in 2003, having some sort of check on the government’s claims seems more urgent than ever.
Transparent, credible alternatives to the official story are invaluable, and the means to create them now seem to be within reach.
But the small nonprofits that now strive to compete with three-letter agencies cannot remotely approach them in breadth or depth, and the think tanks still have only a handful of appropriately skilled personnel with the right forms of specialized knowledge. They also have struggled to find consistent sponsorship for activities beyond the “tried and true” forms of research – expert interviews or academic workshops, leading to thick papers that often go largely unread.
Non-governmental imagery intelligence in the public interest is still taking baby steps.
Part of the answer to this problem has been a tight focus on a small handful of targets. For a variety of reasons, North Korea has drawn an unusually large share of the attention of think tanks working with commercial overhead imagery, especially those interested in WMD.
After all, understanding the extent and status of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs is crucial for making sound policy. But even within this niche, skilled practitioners are scarce.
A few small groups of researchers – including my colleagues at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (MIIS)–have been chipping away at WMD-related facilities and activities in North Korea for a few years now.
Their run of notable finds may have started with a transporter-erector-launcher construction facility at Mupyong-ni, spotted in 2014. Earlier this year, they located a facility suspected to be a secret uranium-enrichment facility, as well as a newly expanded missile component production site near Hamhung.
Just previous week, they uncovered what appears to be the first public identification of an North Korean ICBM base, undergoing continued construction about seven miles from a different, previously identified missile base.
This work involves, for the most part, a slow, steady accumulation of knowledge, but the pace has started to pick up.
Think-tanks usually partner with a single broadcaster or publication to expand reach.
Sharing the Findings
Another complication associated with this type of work is how to communicate findings to the public.
Where should a new discovery, or an update on something older, appear? What context should it be placed in? What uncertainties should be highlighted? What overall significance should be ascribed to the findings?
After decades of on-again, off-again diplomacy, breakthroughs and failures, deceptions and surprises, WMD in North Korea has become a touchy subject, spiced with recriminations and partisan impulses, to say nothing of the usual petty turf-marking.
To all that we may now add fears of nothing less than nuclear war. No one wants to be responsible for a headline that becomes a cable news segment, then a presidential tweet, and then an international incident – or worse.
One pitfall can be found in choice of a news-media partner. Most researchers in this field have learned that the best approach to a newsworthy report is to offer an exclusive story to a smart reporter at a prominent news outlet. A journalist working on an exclusive can work relatively unhurriedly, evaluating the material more carefully than might otherwise be the case. The result is more likely to be early coverage with an appropriately nuanced grasp of the material, which in turn helps to shape any coverage that follows.
Other approaches may result in one’s work being either overlooked or distorted.
But if one does offer a reporter an exclusive, it’s important to take care that it be someone who shares a broadly similar commitment to informing the public. Everyone in the news business wants a big story, naturally – but not everyone has sufficient qualms about how aggressively to chase the proverbial eyeballs.
Fast and Loose
Even leading publications aren’t immune to sensational ledes and clickbait-y headlines. That was unfortunately the case in mid-November, when David Sanger and William Broad of the New York Times had the first whack at a new report by a group of well-known North Korea specialists at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC.
“In North Korea, Missile Bases Suggest a Great Deception,” announced the headline, drawing on language from the story’s second paragraph.
But little to support that idea could be found in the underlying report, a high-quality photographic examination of a long-established Scud missile base. (While already identified in the public literature, the base had not been scrutinized in this manner before.)
The ensuing controversy included an unusual pair of public rebukes from the Blue House and the White House (not to mention from the official North Korean media).
And asked if he would agree with the “great deception” formula in the NYT, Joseph Bermudez, a seasoned North Korea military analyst who co-authored the CSIS report, told ForeignPolicy.com that he “wouldn’t phrase it that way…. It’s important that the study be a place to start a discussion, where we can… say, ‘OK, this is what we know.'”
Sadly, that was not the tenor of the discussion that followed the appearance of the NYT story.
Nor was it the first time that Broad and Sanger played fast and loose with reporting on North Korea’s missile program.
In August 2017, they authored an article (“North Korea’s Missile Success Is Linked to Ukrainian Plant, Investigators Say“) based on a think-tank researcher’s hypothesis that the program depends on imported engines.
Broad and Sanger used highly misleading language, claiming that these views were shared within the U.S. intelligence community. Their work garnered an unusual public response from an unnamed intelligence community spokesperson, which appeared the next day in multiple news outlets – but not, strangely, in the NYT.
This statement read: “We have intelligence to suggest that North Korea is not reliant on imports of engines. Instead, we judge they have the ability to produce the engines themselves.” (I wrote about this episode for NKNews at the time.)
The August story sparked a bizarre international dispute, with accusations flying back and forth between Russia and Ukraine over who might be secretly supplying the North Koreans or engineering a disinformation campaign against the other side.
Undeterred, the same reporters issued a similar article a month later, speculating that North Korea may depend on either Russia or China for its supplies of UDMH, the fuel used in its more advanced rocket engines (“The Rare, Potent Fuel Powering North Korea’s Weapons“).
This time, an intelligence community spokesman was quoted in the story itself saying, “based on North Korea’s demonstrated science and technological capabilities – coupled with the priority Pyongyang places on missile programs – North Korea probably is capable of producing UDMH domestically.”
It is difficult to understand why as distinguished and influential a publication as the NYT continues to publish misleading work on such a consequential subject. The importance of getting it right surely requires no further explanation there.
Risk of Broader Impact?
Unfortunately, the justified controversy over the Sanger/Broad “great deception” story now seems to have begun to color how some observers view the enterprise of think-tank study of North Korea’s WMD programs.
Some rumblings of disquiet have begun to emanate from Seoul, where suspicions allegedly have arisen that some unnamed party in Washington, DC must have instigated the reports on North Korean missile bases from CSIS and MIIS this November, perhaps aiming to disrupt the scheduling of a much-anticipated inter-Korean summit, the first to take place in Seoul. Some of these views found expression in an opinion article in the Hankyoreh, a leading left-leaning South Korean daily.
These suspicions are misplaced.
The think-tanks in question publish on these subjects with some frequency – these aren’t their first efforts with satellite pictures of North Korean facilities by a long way. As such, I’m quite confident that the authors aren’t taking cues from any hidden hand.
They aren’t trying to undercut inter-Korean diplomacy on their own, either.
Rather, if I were to try to characterize the prevailing views among U.S.-based analysts, it would go something like this: the inter-Korean diplomacy of 2018 has done a great deal to ease an increasingly dangerous confrontation, and is worth supporting for that reason. No one in their right mind would want to return to the crisis atmosphere of 2017.
By contrast, the parallel diplomatic process between North Korea and the United States hasn’t borne much fruit yet, and probably won’t in the future, either. The boasts of senior Trump administration officials that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has agreed to nuclear disarmament are groundless.
At least some of this thinking is widely shared. International relations scholars at U.S. universities hold out little hope for Trump’s disarmament diplomacy, judging by a late October survey conducted by the TRIP program at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. I also share these conclusions.
My colleagues’ findings that North Korea has continued to expand missile production facilities and missile bases after the Trump-Kim summit in June paints a picture consistent with my own understanding of Kim Jong Un’s stated policies.
On January 1, when Kim initiated his public outreach to South Korea, he also declared that “[t]he nuclear weapons research sector and the rocket industry should mass-produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles, the power and reliability of which have already been proved to the full, to give a spur to the efforts for deploying them for action.”
On April 20, when Kim announced his decision to “make positive contributions to the building of the world free from nuclear weapons” by ending tests of nuclear devices and long-range missiles, he also noted that this decision was premised upon North Korea’s military might having been “put on the level wanted by it,” which had made it possible “to reliably guarantee the security of the state and the safety of the people.”
North Korea’s nuclear weapons – “a powerful treasured sword for defending peace”–provide the “firm guarantee” that future generations of North Koreans will “enjoy the most dignified and happiest life in the world” under the same regime.
Nothing in the April 27 Panmunjom summit joint statement or the June 12 Singapore summit joint statement, to my eye, directly contradicts or overrides these declarations, which are themselves consistent with Kim’s earlier stated views.
But if any doubt does remain about the direction of North Korean policy on its nuclear arsenal, then the activities observed on the ground should go a long way toward clearing it up.
Here, then, is the value of having an independent check on official claims about a foreign WMD program: the American public does not need to accept the misleading statements of the president and his administration. North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is not disarming.
Neither is he trying to deceive anyone on that point: his words and actions match up. And so if we are deceived, we should place the blame closer to home.
Not being misled by our own leaders, by sensational reporting, or by our own wishful thinking, offers a precious opportunity.
The higher that expectations are raised for “denuclearization,” the more violently they are likely to come to earth – something that opponents of negotiation within the administration will presumably savor, preferring a return to intensifying sanctions and threats of war.
But those who expect little will not be disappointed.
If Congress and the public understand that there have been no meaningful negotiations, no substantive agreements, and no backsliding, then they will be better prepared to resist the most dangerous courses of action.
We have, at the very least, an insurance policy against being further misled into an epochal disaster. May it be enough. [IDN-InDepthNews – 20 December 2018]
Photo: DPRK state media has been quite transparent about DPRK missile intent | Credit: KCNA
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