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Amateur sleuths crack North Korean secrets

Ben Grubb (via SMH) | May 27, 2013
Not only have they been successful in predicting recent rocket launch dates, they have also been able to use the imagery to identify expansions of prisons and changes to key landmarks.

David Jorm.
David Jorm presenting at the AusCERT security conference. Photo: Ben Grubb

An online community of amateur satellite sleuths are gathering intelligence about North Korea by comparing historical differences in publicly accessible satellite imagery.

Not only have they been successful in predicting recent rocket launch dates, they have also been able to use the imagery to identify expansions of prisons and changes to key landmarks. More recently, they were able to identify satellite dish upgrades to the country's main TV station, KCTV.

This is no longer [government's] exclusive domain. With the data that is now publicly or commercially available independent individuals can also do this [satellite] analysis. 

David Jorm, amatuer satellite sleuth

David Jorm, who studies geography and mathematics at the University of Queensland and plans to travel to North Korea in October, spoke of the online communities on Wednesday at the AusCERT security conference on the Gold Coast.

A slide shows two satellite images comparing a rocket launch site on two different days.
A slide shows two satellite images comparing a rocket launch site on two different days. Photo: Ben Grubb

Mr Jorm began to gain an insight into North Korea after conducting a study that looked at historical differences in satellite imagery to determine whether or not harvesting crops before they were ready during the 1994 to 1998 famine would have had a long-term agricultural impact on the nation.

He said the communities had been using satellite imagery from organisations like DigitalGlobe for a number of years now to perform their own "guerrilla intelligence" on North Korea. What they found was often remarkable, he said.

One of the most prominent landmarks uncovered was what Mr Jorm likes to call the late Kim Jong Il's "pleasure palace" in Pyongyang, which is built into a valley, presumably so it can't be seen from the outside. It has a horseracing track, waterslide and underground railway station.

A slide showing what appears to be an underground air base in North Korea.
A slide showing what appears to be an underground air base in North Korea. Photo: Ben Grubb

Another is an underground air base that appears to run straight through the middle of a mountain. "The idea is that they can fly out of the mountain and store military aircraft inside it so you can't just bomb the airfield and get rid of all the aircraft. It's so cool," Mr Jorm said.

In recent times, however, amateurs have turned their attention to imagery related to the numerous rocket launches North Korea has been conducting. In turning their attention to the rockets, they have been able to predict (sometimes down to the day) when a launch might occur.

 

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