An Obsessive Bunch Penetrates North Korea’s Totalitarian Fog
LONGMONT, Colo.—In an anonymous office building in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, in a part of Colorado where cattle ranches fade into strip malls, a gravel-voiced man with a Brooklyn accent is virtually moving through the streets of Pyongyang.
Joe Bermudez is staring at a computer screen of a detailed satellite image, maneuvering his cursor past guarded checkpoints and into restricted neighborhoods where the North Korean elite live behind high concrete walls. Looking down on the city from more than 250 miles up, he lingers over what he believes is the private airport of Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s young leader, pointing out a pair of VIP helicopters and a Soviet-era biplane. He moves north, jumping across the countryside and picking out hidden tunnels, walled compounds, and a small flotilla of military hovercraft designed to storm South Korea’s beaches.
“Driving around,” as he calls it when he follows roads in search of something new, humming absentmindedly as his eyes flick across the screen.
Bermudez is a watcher, one of the largely anonymous tribe of researchers who study North Korea, one of the world’s most isolated nations. There’s Michael Madden, a largely self-taught analyst with an encyclopedic knowledge of the government elite, and Curtis Melvin, whose research ranges from monetary policy to electricity grids and who rambles through the buttoned-down Washington think tank where he works in jeans and a frayed T-shirt. There’s Adam Cathcart at Britain’s University of Leeds and Cheong Seong-Chang at the Sejong Institute outside Seoul. There’s the longtime U.S. intelligence officer, a man quietly revered by many in these circles, who now writes Pyongyang crime novels under the pseudonym James Church.
They are university professors, think tank analysts, and writers for a string of North Korea-centric websites. They are collaborators and competitors. They are the Kremlinologists of Pyongyang.
And they insist North Korea is nowhere near as mysterious as you think it is. At least not always.
Secrecy and Chaos
“North Korea is a very secretive place. But it’s not as secretive as many people believe,” said Andrei Lankov, a Russian-born professor at Kookmin University in Seoul. “It’s much, much easier now to get information.”
The chaos that swept North Korea during a mid-1990s famine dramatically changed how information flows in and out of the country, while policy changes have eased restrictions on visitors.
Still, North Korea remains like nowhere else. It is a repressive and deeply isolated nation where the Internet is limited to a tiny elite and most outsiders are under near-constant government surveillance. It has been ruled by one family for more than six decades, with the founder worshipped as a near-deity. It has no political opposition, no free press, and no freedom of movement. It has an archipelago of political prison camps that rights groups estimate hold at least 80,000 people.
Major news—like the collapse last year of a 23-story Pyongyang apartment building—can go officially unreported for days, if ever. The inner workings of the country’s top leadership, meanwhile, are so opaque that some watchers remain unsure if Kim Jong Un is truly in charge of the country. He may, they say, be only a figurehead, with real power resting with a cabal of powerful bureaucrats.
Secrecy is deeply rooted.
“When the enemies peek into our republic, they see only a fog,” Kim Jong Il, the father of Kim Jong Un and the country’s ruler until his death in 2011, once said.
And yet North Korea is not an impenetrable bubble, say the watchers, who have spent years refining methods of peering inside.
They do it by poring over strings of digitized satellite images, and by talking to North Korean refugees who have fled to China and South Korea. They parse North Korean news reports for what is, and is not, reported. They talk to diplomats, business people and, when they can, to North Koreans. They read obscure Chinese journals for political clues and gauge economic changes by measuring how much North Korean light can be seen from space. They forge relationships with secretive government agencies that track North Korea.
The watchers search everywhere for clues: What does it mean that Kim Jong Un has put on weight? How significant is it that he used the word “people” 90 times in a recent major speech, but didn’t say “nuclear” once? Do a handful of phrases in government statements, innocuous to anyone but a watcher, reflect a late 1990s power struggle?
Sometimes researchers are lucky—like the propaganda poster, photographed by a tourist in 2009, that signaled the rise of Kim Jong Un. But most of their work must be slowly knitted together, a series of threads that eventually reveal something larger.
Take satellite imagery. At first, Bermudez said, satellites seem to offer seductively easy answers: How many political prisoners are being held? Is Pyongyang close to developing a nuclear-capable long-range missile? Are more exports flowing to China?
Finding answers, though, requires diving deeply into the image. The analysis begins with sophisticated software that reveals hundreds of shades of light, including some infrared wavelengths, and a vast range of colors. Analysts merge separate images to make them clearer and use software to lessen distortion. That analysis is then woven together with other information: historical data, other imagery, research reports.
It’s easy to be fooled.
To demonstrate this, Bermudez pulls up an image of a complex outside the North Korean city of Chongjin. Look at it from directly overhead, and it’s just a cluster of buildings with some agricultural fields off to one side. But look from an angle—”off-nadir” in the analyst’s lexicon—and things jump into view, and that cluster of buildings becomes the political prison known as Camp 25.
“If I was looking straight down, I wouldn’t see the barbed wire. I would have trouble seeing the shadow of the guard tower,” said Bermudez, chief analytics officer at the AllSource Analysis, a commercial intelligence firm based in Longmont. From an angle, “All of a sudden it becomes more real.”
For decades, it was hard to see anything in North Korea.
Over the Years
Until the 1990s, few foreigners traveled there, and few North Koreans traveled abroad. The country was trapped in a Stalinist time warp, with control of information so absolute that many North Koreans knew nothing beyond government propaganda. In some years, fewer than a dozen North Koreans managed to flee the country.
That began changing when the end of Soviet aid and then a series of floods caused a 1990s famine that outside researchers believe killed hundreds of thousands of people. Government control broke down for a time as Pyongyang struggled to keep the country functioning. Tens of thousands of North Koreans fled their homeland, and foreign aid and aid workers began to flow in.
While the government soon reasserted its control, things had changed immensely. Thousands of tourists now visit North Korea every year. Foreign businesses, from Chinese mining companies to French clothing manufacturers, make deals with North Korean partners. About 27,000 North Korean refugees now live in South Korea and thousands of North Koreans legally travel abroad every year, most often to China. North Korea’s own official data, long derided as a meaningless fog, is—at least occasionally—now helpful to researchers.
The ranks of the watchers grew with the spread of information, including drawing in people who might have been dismissed a few years earlier. They are not university professors, retired spies, or former diplomats.
They are people like Michael Madden.
Madden is a friendly, foul-mouthed former academic with a Star Wars tattoo on his forearm (of the mysterious bounty hunter Boba Fett) and an exhaustive knowledge of North Korea’s leadership. A decade ago, the 33-year-old stumbled into North Korea research and found himself addicted.
Discussions with him range across Korean history, sentences spilling over one another as he jumps across ministries and departments. He watches officials through their appearances in state media, by talking with visitors to North Korea, and through a string of contacts around the world. He can reel off the biographies of dozens of officials from memory.
He is a master of North Korean minutiae—”I do inside-baseball. I’m proud to do inside-baseball”—whose obsessive tracking of the country’s leadership soon earned him respect.
His conclusion, after watching the country’s new leader for four years now, and seeing so many top officials drop from view?
“Kim Jong Un is in the process of basically eliminating all alternate power centers,” he said, speaking outside a coffee shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “That’s what we’re seeing.”
Curtis Melvin is another of the new generation of watchers, a one-time graduate student who left school to study North Korea full time. He remembers when, just a few years ago, he could read nearly everything written about North Korea.
“Now I’m just bombarded with stuff,” said Melvin, a researcher at the U.S.–Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and a writer for 38north.org, the institute’s influential North Korea-oriented website. “It’s already not so much fun.”
Melvin has spent years studying North Korea’s economy and infrastructure. His databases include everything from the precise location of small-town stores to the electricity grid in industrial cities. They are massive projects, with tens of thousands of locations tagged in satellite images. It is North Korean pointillism, with Melvin using small details to create an amazingly comprehensive picture.
“I go over the entire country methodically, by myself,” he says.
And when he is finished—when he’s examined the entire country—fresh satellite images are available and it’s time to start all over again.
“It never ends.”