+ A

Trump highlights U.S. spying on North Korea

Mar 06,2019
U.S. President Donald Trump claims that the United States knows “every inch” of North Korea - and indeed, U.S. intelligence has extensive reconnaissance assets, including its $1 billion Keyhole spy satellites, that can uncover the regime’s hidden nuclear facilities.

Trump, in a press conference in Hanoi, Vietnam, last Thursday following his truncated second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, revealed U.S. intelligence has “found” undisclosed facilities beyond the Yongbyon nuclear complex, adding that North Korea was “surprised” at this.

Last June, ahead of the first North-U.S. summit in Singapore, U.S. and South Korean intelligence jointly compiled a detailed report on North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities, according to a source familiar with the situation Monday.

“This included all information on North Korea’s nuclear and missile development program,” said this source. “The two countries’ intelligence authorities also procured a list of 300 key North Korean nuclear researchers.”

The combined intelligence capabilities are in large part due to the United States’ latest surveillance assets.

This includes Washington’s advanced KH-12 Kennan Keyhole reconnaissance satellite, which costs around $1 billion. It can capture detailed imagery with a digital camera capable of night photography and equipped with an infrared detector. It is said to pass the Korean Peninsula up to four times a day and can avoid detection by North Korean satellites.

“The United States’ latest Keyhole satellite can closely capture images to the point where it can determine if a person is reading a newspaper or a magazine,” said a former intelligence official. “However, it’s not to the point where it can view the text of an article.”

The existence of the Yongbyon nuclear complex was revealed to the global media through French satellite imagery in September 1989. The United States became aware of Yongbyon through its own intelligence satellite in the early 1980s.

Shin Jong-woo, a senior analyst at the Korea Defense and Security Forum, said, “The U.S. intelligence satellites are outstanding in themselves, but U.S. intelligence analysts also have decades worth of know-how backing these assets.”

The former intelligence official said that Washington became aware of the possibility that North Korea might be hiding uranium enrichment capabilities outside of Yongbyon based on a small clue.

In the early 2000s, North Korea imported a large stock of high-strength aluminum alloy from Russia. Aluminum alloy is used to make uranium enrichment centrifuges.

Nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the U.S. Los Alamos weapons laboratory and a professor emeritus at Stanford University, said after a visit to North Korea in November 2010 that there were 2,000 centrifuges at the uranium enrichment facility in the Yongbyon nuclear complex. Yet North Korea had imported enough aluminum alloy to make 6,000 centrifuges, putting to question whether there were more and where those might be located.

Centrifuges to produce highly-enriched uranium (HEU) do not require a lot of space, and thus are easy to conceal.

Yet, for the sake of efficacy, thousands of centrifuges are usually operated together in a single location. This requires a lot of electricity, so the United States closely monitors North Korean regions that use a lot of electricity.

Shin Bum-chul, a senior security analyst at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said, “The United States generally searched around North Korea’s power plants and even in remote areas prioritizing places with a lot of power cables.”

Facilities producing HEU operate around the clock, inevitably getting heated, so U.S. intelligence authorities use the Keyhole satellite’s infrared detector to trace the heat waves.

Washington also uses its Lockheed Martin U-2 ultra-high altitude reconnaissance planes, which are capable of capturing images 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of the military demarcation line between the two Koreas. It also has Boeing RC-135 signals intelligence aircraft.

Human intelligence (Humint) and signals intelligence (Sigint), or the interception of electronic communications, are also used to cross-validate the information gathered through these reconnaissance assets. South Korea largely contributes to Humint through information gathered from North Korean defectors.

BY LEE CHUL-JAE, PARK YONG-HAN AND SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]