The Rocket in Kim Jong Un's Pocket

The missile we should be worried about isn't the one North Korea is about to launch, it's the much bigger one that's hiding in plain sight.

North Korea announced on Tuesday, April 10, that it had completed preparations for this week's satellite launch and a day later started fueling for a test that the United States says raises questions about Pyongyang's desire to improve relations with the rest of the world. But more worryingly, Pyongyang also announced that it had begun a five-year program to develop even larger rockets, which could function as intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) potentially able to reach the continental United States.

Earlier this month, a South Korean newspaper reported an unconfirmed claim that a U.S. reconnaissance satellite had spotted a new North Korean rocket, probably at the Sanum Dong research and development facility in Pyongyang, where other long-range systems have been observed in the past. According to this report and others that seem to substantiate the North's claims, this new 40 meter missile is 25 percent longer and has a larger booster than the Unha-3 rocket scheduled for launch this week. Whether this system is functional or a life-size mock-up remains unclear. While impossible to confirm, analyzing satellite images and photographs of the new launch facility, as well as displays at a museum in Pyongyang, seem to suggest that North Korea is developing an intercontinental ballistic missile with longer range and greater capabilities than the one scheduled for testing this week. And there's a chance that this new, more threatening missile might even be on display in Pyongyang soon, for either the April 15 centenary parade for the late Kim Il Sung or the April 25 military founding day parade.

Is there cause to worry? In a word, yes. Before leaving office last year, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates spoke numerous times about the threat a North Korean ICBM posed to the United States. While a previous North Korean missile tested in 2009 -- the Unha-2 -- could potentially reach the United States, the even larger rocket in development will likely be able to carry heavier warhead payloads longer distances, an important attribute given the likelihood that Pyongyang's nuclear technology may not be that advanced.

Some clues to this mysterious new missile can be found at North Korea's new Sohae test center, on which construction started early this decade and where it plans to launch the Unha-3 rocket this week. Pyongyang has historically designed its gantries (launch towers) with a view towards accommodating future generations of rockets. For example, the Tonghae gantry at its old launch facility, was initially used for the 1998 launch of the smaller Taepodong -1 (TD-1) rocket, but also built to hold the later, larger Unha missile.

Figure 1. This picture, taken recently in Pyongyang's Three Revolutions Museum, shows scale models of the Unha-2 next to the TD-1 rocket in the gantry.

To launch the larger Unha rocket in 2009, the North Koreans added a fifth set of movable work platforms at the top of the gantry shown in figure 2.

Recent photos of the new Sohae gantry taken by visiting journalists on April 8 show that it is designed the same way. In figure 3, the Unha-3 rocket is set on a seven-meter high mobile launch platform. The 30 meter-long rocket comes up to the second level of the fourth set of work platforms, leaving about 10 meters of the tower, enough to accommodate the reported new 40-meter rocket.

Tonghae comparison TD-1 & Unha-2.tiff

Figure 2. The Tonghae gantry used for the TD-1 and the same gantry with the addition of the fifth platform required for the Unha-2.

 Figure 3.  The Unha-3, inside the gantry at Sohae, comes up to only the fourth set of work platforms.

Sohae's mobile launch pad provides another clue about the physical dimensions of the new North Korean rocket. The commercial satellite photograph in figure 4 shows this platform in 2008, while it was being assembled, with a four-meter hole in its center. Next to the mobile launch pad, however, there is a plug that reduces the hole to just 2.5 meters, enabling the stand to hold the Unha-3 rocket. But the plug can be removed to accommodate a larger rocket, like the one presumably planned.

Other clues can be found at the new launch site. Commercial satellite photography from 2006, when Sohae was still under construction, show that the number and size of storage tanks inside the large buildings near the launch pad that are used to store Unha-3's first-stage propellants greatly exceeded what would be needed to fuel the rocket for this week's launch. In other words, the tanks appear to have been built for a larger rocket. The same is true for the rocket engine test stand at Sohae, which is designed to fire larger, higher energy engines than the facility at the old Tonghae site, where the smaller Unha engines were tested.

Figure 4. Mobile launch stand and its plug under construction.

Pictures recently seen on display at the Three Revolutions Museum's space exhibit in Pyongyang may provide another clue to the mysterious rocket's existence and characteristics. Figure 5 shows a photograph of an artist's concept of a large satellite launch vehicle and gantry tower. The rocket and gantry portrayed in this picture differ from the Taepodong 1 launched in 1998 and the Unha rocket tested in 2009 and soon to be launched this week. But is this just another piece of propaganda or a representation of a future large DPRK space launch vehicle?

It's impossible to say for sure. The space exhibit is full of false or misleading claims, including that the two satellites launched during previous tests achieved orbit, which they did not. Another photo shows a Chinese satellite that the North Koreans claim as one of their own. On the other hand, both launch videos and models of earlier rocket tests are accurate. 

Figure 5. Artist's concept of a possible larger new North Korean rocket.

Assume for a moment, then, that the photo -- propaganda though it may be -- bares some resemblance to a future large North Korean rocket. The depiction of the confirmed gantry at Sohae doesn't look quite the same, but let's also assume that the dimensions are close. Given our detailed knowledge of the Sohae gantry from commercial satellite imagery, and now ground photos, the rocket in the picture can be roughly scaled to obtain its dimensions: about 38 to 40 meters long and 3.5 to 4 meters in diameter. The dimensions are similar to the large rocket reported by the press, the height of the Sohae gantry, and the diameter of the hole in the mobile test pad.

To carry this analysis one step further, a rocket of this size would be able to comfortably mount inside its first stage nine engines used by the Nodong medium-range missile -- more than twice as many as the Unha-3 first stage.  The second stage looks to be 2.5 meters in diameter, similar to the Unha first stage, and could thus mount four engines.  The two stages alone would give the next-generation North Korean rocket nearly 450 tons of thrust, much more than the current generation of North Korean rockets and more than enough to power a highly capable ICBM or space-launch vehicle.

Of course, none of the information regarding the image in figure 5 is definitive.  And information about North Korea's WMD programs is scarce, even for governments watching Pyongyang closely. But the pieces of this unclassified puzzle -- press reports, commercial satellite pictures of the new test facility, and exhibits from a Pyongyang museum -- allow us to put together a more complete picture of North Korea's new rocket than has been previously available. It also gives us a rare glimpse into Pyongyang's future plans as it moves down the road to becoming a small nuclear power, a development that has major implications for international peace and security.


DigitalGlobe, 23/12/08

Democracy Lab

Pictures at a Revolution

Data visualization can offer some unique insights into social upheaval. But the data artists are just getting started.

At first glance you don't quite know what you're looking at. It could be strands of mitochondrial DNA, or sperm fertilizing an egg, or perhaps the product of an incongruous union between a sea creature and a hairball. As the thing grows, it passes through a series of increasingly complex mutations -- ending up as a kind of Death Star under construction.

You're looking at data -- or, to be more precise, a visual rendering of tweets and retweets from a several-hour period on February 11, 2011, starting shortly before the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

More than ever before, we inhabit a cosmos of data. With smart phones and the ability to share reams of information publicly on social media, our digital footprints are everywhere -- from what we “like” on Facebook to our store loyalty cards to banking transactions on our smart phones.


With that explosion of data have come new ways to visualize it. From Sumerian cuneiform to the humble pie chart, visual symbols transform the abstract into the concrete, helping us to see patterns and relationships we might have otherwise missed. The bigger the data sets, the more useful pictures of them become -- and at no time in human history have we ever had to deal with floods of data greater than the ones that wash over us now.

Of all the social phenomena that invite analysis, few are as complex, or as volatile, as revolutions. The petabytes of social media data generated by the upheavals of the Arab Spring are fertile ground for social scientists studying those events. For years we've been snapping photos of demonstrators and protests; now the new cosmos of data potentially enables us to map the ebb and flow of the ideas that drive them, something like a magnetic-resonance imagery technique for visualizing the mechanisms of dramatic change.

Interest in the role of social media first exploded during Iran's post-election unrest in 2009. In his "Retweet Revolution," Gilad Lotan, a designer and computer scientist, tracked Twitter conversation threads around popular hashtags such as #iranelection, #ahmadinejad, and #mousavi. By visualizing flows, Lotan says that we can "put a face" to an audience -- as, for example, in this striking project about the Arab Spring, authored by Lotan and several of his collaborators (click to expand):

In 2011, Kovas Boguta beautifully mapped the "Egypt Influence Network," showing Arab- and English-language tweeters -- and, perhaps most strikingly, the bridge nodes that spanned the linguistic divide.

For social scientists, big data sets and visualizations are already proving to be powerful tools. Writing about network diagrams of tweets around Iran's 2009 post-election crisis, researcher Devin Gaffney saw that by using tag clouds, "we can identify the key terms used in tweets," as he wrote. "By looking at different tag clouds over time, we can perhaps even see terms reflect a general shift from awareness/advocacy towards organization/mobilization, and eventually action/reaction."

Data scientists can also map the growth of ideas over time. In 2008, John Kelly, of Morningside Analytics, a company that specializes in social network analysis, visualized the Iranian blogosphere. When he did the same a year later and compared the maps, he discovered not only that the number of blogs had grown, but also that new segments had sprung up. One of them, which he dubbed “CyberShia,” revealed a dramatic increase in blogging activity by religiously oriented users. While this could point to an effort by the pro-regime Basij militia to contain dissident discourse on the Web, another theory sees the data as evidence of an intensifying debate about Islamic law and its role within the country’s political system.

Iranian blogosphere 2009:

Iranian blogosphere 2008:

Similarly, by looking back at social-media data emerging from the Arab Spring, it's possible to see political ideas congeal and take shape. By evaluating data from 2010 and 2011, the Arab Media Influence Report, which captured over 10 million online conversations per day, showed how discourse became politicized by the start of 2011. In the first quarter of 2010, 57 percent of the Arabic conversations on social media included socio-economic terms (such as income, housing, and minimum wage). By 2011, that number had dropped to 37 percent. In 2010, 35 percent of the conversations on social media included political terms such as revolution, corruption, and freedom). In 2011, the number shot up to 88 percent.

Of course, we hardly need social media data to tell us that Arab society was becoming more politically aware in the period leading up to the revolts. Arguably one might have arrived at a comparable conclusion by sitting in Cairo coffee houses for a year or by tracking debates in the Arabic press.

Data visualization really comes into its own when it allows us to see patterns we might otherwise have missed, patterns that can be modeled and applied to other contexts. If, as some sociologists believe, structure is destiny, then network graphs might be able to tell us about the life spans of political movements, their likely growth and their eventual demise. "People tend to think about the qualities of the individual when they figure out whether they will be likely to succeed or fail," says Marc A. Smith, the director of the Social Media Research Foundation, a California-based nonprofit. "Network theory people, and sociologists more generally, like to think about the properties of a person's network as having equal, if not greater consequence to their likely outcomes."

As an example Smith cites two visualizations he made of the Occupy movement and the Tea Party on Twitter. In his renderings, the Tea Party appears as a far more tight-knit group, with many of them following each other, whereas Occupy is made up of looser clusters with a few high-profile accounts receiving plenty of retweets. In the lower right-hand corner of the visualizations there is a grid, a matrix of "isolates:" People who are talking about the ideas of Occupy or the Tea Party, but who don't have connections to others on the graph. For Occupy, the number of isolates is greater, which according to Smith could indicate a larger potential for growth and stronger brand cachet.

TeaParty on Twitter:

Occupy on Twitter:

When interrogating the data, the answers they yield are only as good as the questions we ask. Looking at the Twitter data obviously doesn't tell us how the Occupy forces in Zuccotti Park behave, sound, or smell. (The Twitterverse, after all, is not the universe.) But as Smith notes, fleshing out the data shows that that the group's structure strikingly reflects its self-description as a decentralized and bottom-up movement. "There's no question that big data can be very, very useful," says Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina. "But it's less useful and even misleading at times if it is not evaluated by people who understand the context of what they're looking for."

Without any context about Internet penetration or the demographic of Twitter users, network diagrams of Egyptian tweeters can give us the impression that Twitter played an oversized role in the unrest there. We might also get an overblown impression of the liberal character of the Arab Spring. But instead of being broadly representative of Egyptian society, these tweeters are rather a small sub-set of young, educated, often English-speaking elites, with a propensity for liberal ideas. They are perhaps as revealing about Internet connectivity as they are about Egyptian society. (Gregor Aische, a German designer, has produced his own striking visualization of the global digital divide.)

But perhaps it helps to ask a different question. If we want to analyze what's going on in the minds of Egypt's most influential elites, then that social media data set can certainly offer useful answers. "That may only be a sampling of a small [segment] of population, but if that's how they're organizing and communicating, then that's an important population," says Noah Iliinsky, an expert in the theory and practice of information visualization. "So I wouldn't discount that population simply because it's not representative."

What has got businesses, governments, and academics excited about big data and visualization is the ability to detect patterns in real time rather than mapping perceptions post-factum -- and even to use this data to make predictions. We're already seeing cases in which visualized data enable policy makers to make quick informed choices about public health, poverty, or energy efficiency. Google Flu Trends, which estimates current flu activity around the world in real-time by monitoring search terms, has been shown to predict confirmed cases of flu with a level of accuracy comparable to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2010, researchers managed to predict with an accuracy of 87.6 percent the daily changes in the closing values of the Dow Jones Industrial Average by analyzing Twitter users' moods.

Could comparable techniques work for predicting social upheaval? The UN has launched an initiative, Global Pulse, that uses new technologies to collect, analyze, and filter information to help governments and organizations better understand what is happening in certain at-risk communities. In 2010 and 2011, the Ushahidi group, famous for its pioneering crowdsourcing and real-time visualization software, created a website that tracked potential disturbances during Liberia's elections.


On a similar note, the Associated Press reported in November 2011 that the CIA was monitoring five million tweets a day to monitor revolutionary change. (Of course, the same data can be used by repressive governments who want to track dissent and unrest.)

One of the key problems in making assumptions about societal change based on social media data is our limited understanding of the relevant conversion rates. Just as online marketers, advertisers, and political campaigners are frantically trying to understand the relationship between tweets and dollars or tweets and votes, the conversion rates for social change are murkier still. What assumptions, for example, can data scientists make between tweet volume and the amount of people likely to attend a protest? Or can the sentiments expressed in Facebook status updates be mined to produce an accurate indication of support for Vladimir Putin?

Given that social media analysis is still in its infancy, the answers to those questions remain elusive. So-called sentiment analysis still struggles to distinguish the signals from the noise. Network diagrams mapping relationships between tweeters and "likers" tell us that there is a big crowd, but they are pretty unhelpful in telling us what that crowd is thinking and why. While programs will become better at parsing huge amounts of data, they are still more comfortable counting than they are at interpreting. Computers still struggle with slang, sarcasm, and subtexts.

Take these tweets from user DanielNothing, who was tweeting about the London riots on August 6, 2011:

Heading to Tottenham to join the riot! who's with me? #ANARCHY

Clear enough, right? If thousands were retweeting DanielNothing's tweet, or tweeting similar sentiments, police officers might be well-advised to deploy resources accordingly. But then DanielNothing tweets again:

Hang on, that last tweet should've read 'Curling up on the sofa with an Avengers DVD and my missus, who's with me?' What a klutz I am!

Only friends of DanielNothing could say for sure what he meant. Is he just being sarcastic? Or could his first tweet be taken at face value, with his second being read as an attempt to mask his true intent? If a human struggles to decipher the true meaning, how would a computer fare?

Unpacking the complex performance art of social media is not easy. Our emotions on display might not always be attuned to the emotions we feel and our stated preferences might be approximations of our true desires. The cultural and societal meaning of a retweet or a Facebook "like" is more complex than we may think and varies across societies and platforms. "Not everyone is talking about it while mentioning it," says Fadi Salem, a fellow of governance and innovation at the Dubai School of Government.

People regularly retweet links to things they haven't read, not necessarily because they endorse them, but because they value the source or succumb to peer pressure. "At the moment, most [social media] analyses are not only superficial, but kind of crude," says Tufekci. "You don't even know were these tweets positive or negative... and what does this excitement correspond with."

Despite these limitations, the amount of data is unprecedented, and is correspondingly poised to transform sociological research. "We are now getting moment-by-moment statements from hundreds of millions of people in a native machine-readable format," says Smith. "This has never happened before."

Finding more innovative ways to process, parse, manage, and visualize this information will be crucial as the mountains of data grow. Piers Fawkes, who runs PSFK, a trends analysis company that has consulted for UN Global Pulse, says the data-rich future will encompass not just social-media data but also search queries, YouTube queries, and financial and retail transactions. The open data movement is pushing for more and more data sets to be made public so that others can benefit from them. Global notions of privacy are likely to loosen as we grow more comfortable (or clueless) about sharing our information.

As more people get online around the world, especially through their cheap smart phones (of which there are now some 4 billion), data streams will proliferate and most segments of society will reveal themselves through various kinds of social media data. (Last year, for example, Twitter user @Arasmus used information from Twitter accounts to map out violence against pro-democracy protestors in Libya.)

Advocates of open data are excited by the possibilities -- as no doubt are certain governments interested in more sophisticated ways of snooping on their citizens. Mobile phones allow us to become nodes in a human sensor network, feeding data sets on the weather or the state of water pumps. Big data visualized in real time can help to manage traffic congestion or to allow medical workers to better allocate supplies in hospitals.

"Data visualization will bring us deep knowledge. It will bring us awareness of things that have been too data-intensive to get good answers from in the past," says Iliinsky. "It will get us answers more quickly, if we can collect and analyze the data more quickly than we have in the past. And it's going to show us areas that we may have overlooked." Take the case of Dataminr, an analytics company that has just announced a partnership with Twitter that will presumably give the company greater access to tweets and metadata. The company claims that its system got wind of Osama bin Laden’s death minutes before news media -- minutes that could have enabled the company’s financial clients to get ahead of major moves in the markets.

No one should expect social media analysis to replace surveys, existing early-warning networks, or traditional ethnographic research any time soon. Yet if these data visualization tools can make good on their promise, we'll soon have some powerful new ways of telling stories about our social universe with a speed and clarity that would have been hard to imagine just a few years ago. If we want to take a meaningful snapshot of the next iteration of Tahrir Square, reaching for a camera will no longer be our only option.