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How online clues located North Korea's missile-launcher factories

Martyn Williams | Feb. 11, 2014
A few seconds of video, literature, a couple of memoirs and Google Earth helped locate a secret North Korean military plant.

But it proved to be enough.

Using dimensions of the trucks from that Chinese brochure, the size of the building could be estimated. A distinct set of windows halfway down pointed to a cupola — a glass cap over the top of the building — and the lack of any low-level windows indicated the building was either partially buried or blocked in.

Lewis' colleague, research associate Melissa Hanham, produced a computer model of the structure, and researchers deduced something interesting: The clips apparently showed two similar but different buildings.

"That's a weird-looking building," said Lewis. "If I can get a satellite picture of that building, we're going to recognize it. The question is, where do you start looking?"

Combing through all 120,000 square kilometers of the country would take a lot of time, so it was back to information that was already public.

North Korean defector memoirs pointed to military factories centered around Kanggye in the north of the country. One specifically mentioned a town called Hakmu, "where missile launchers are manufactured." The town doesn't appear on official maps but is mentioned in a World Health Organization report and sufficiently well described that its location can be deduced.

The researchers also overlaid data from North Korea Uncovered, a Google Earth file that maps thousands of points of interest in the country, including anti-aircraft artillery batteries.

"Suddenly, Hakmu looks really interesting," said Lewis, pointing to a small town on a satellite picture. "It's a place that we know exists, that they don't talk about very much, that's in the heart of the defense industry, and it's really well defended by surface-to-air missile sites."

It wasn't long before a building was found. The cupola is revealed to be a fan-like structure designed to allow the missile launcher to be fully erected while inside the factory. Google's historical imagery showed that at some point the roof was changed, apparently to accommodate the KN-08 launchers.

So, were the two buildings the same structure? The researchers found a second, similar building nearby and now believe some of the 13-second video might have been shot in the second building.

The last remaining question: Could the truck fit inside the building?

From the satellite pictures, the size of the building could be estimated more accurately than in the original TV pictures, and it turned out to be an exact fit for the launcher vehicles, Lewis said.

The researchers had found their building and located a second, similar one, and it had all been revealed with open-source information.

As for the original question of the export, the finding adds to the theory that the missile launchers are indeed assembled inside North Korea.

Full details of the project can be found on 38 North, the website of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

 

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