Undercover from Overhead in North Korea

Why satellite images -- not smuggled videos -- reveal the real dangers lurking inside Kim Jong Un’s nuclear hermit kingdom.

And here we are again: inside the mysterious North Korea, the hermit kingdom that is not so hermit after all.

On Jan. 14, PBS's Frontline featured the "Secret State of North Korea," a documentary that used undercover footage to "shine light on the hidden world of the North Korean people." And it did just that -- taking viewers on the streets to meet the country's poorest and most forgotten.

Though the street images can give us a glimpse of everyday life in North Korea, the satellite images -- orbiting 250,000 feet over Pyongyang's secret installations, where weapons of mass destruction are developed -- tell us a great deal more about what Pyongyang has up its sleeve.

From research and development facilities to nuclear and missile test sites to plutonium production and uranium enrichment facilities, North Korea's WMD programs demonstrate a five-decade-long, multibillion-dollar commitment comparable to the Manhattan Project. While some pundits argue that the North's program is a bluff designed to squeeze assistance out of the international community, even the most accomplished con artist would find it impossible to fake such a large-scale effort. Moreover, the North may not want to hide everything: Its emerging program has a security mission -- as well as a political one -- to signal to the outside world that it is a force to be reckoned with.

But while the general public was been consumed by news of Dennis Rodman's latest games, Pyongyang was working. 2013 was a productive year for North Korea in its push to modernize the country's nuclear weapons complex. Here's a look at what commercial satellites captured at four of its key WMD installations -- and what this might mean for the year ahead.

Yongbyon Nuclear Facility

Located some 50 miles north of Pyongyang, Yongbyon is North Korea's oldest nuclear installation, which American spy satellites have closely watched since the early 1960s. Two years ago, the North launched a major modernization program that, in 2013, began to yield results, catapulting forward its nuclear weapons program.

Probably one of the most notable surprises this past year was that North Korea resuscitated an old 5 megawatt plutonium production reactor, which had been shuttered in 2007 as part of a negotiated agreement at the multilateral six-party talks (which brought together the United States, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia, and North Korea). This is a key development, as the plutonium produced from this very reactor was not only used in the North's past nuclear tests but also to build its small nuclear arsenal, an estimated eight to 12 bombs. Now that it is operating again, experts believe it can produce one bombs' worth of fissile material every year.

North Korea also doubled the size of the complex's new uranium enrichment plant, first revealed in 2010, though that probably is not yet fully operational. And if that weren't enough development for the year, Pyongyang went the extra mile and finished the exterior of an experimental light-water reactor -- intended to produce power for the energy-starved country -- and constructed a building the size of a football field that may produce fuel for that small reactor.

Things to watch in 2014: Expect to see Pyongyang restart a large reprocessing plant -- also disabled in 2007 -- that can separate plutonium from the spent fuel rods in the operating reactor. The reactor is operating, but separating the plutonium from waste materials in its fuel rods will require using this facility. It's also worth keeping an eye on the uranium enrichment plant, which could become operational this year. Pyongyang will finish installing equipment inside the new light-water reactor and get ready for trial runs leading to its eventual operation.

Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site

Located in a deserted mountainous region, Punggye-ri has been the site of three nuclear tests, most recently in February 2013. After the blast, North Korea spent most of 2013 preparing the area for future detonations. While there are no signs that North Korea plans to test again soon, commercial satellites have spotted a new tunnel entrance and a growing pile of dirt and rock nearby, which means that workers have been excavating the site. When completed, the North will have a total of three tunnels ready and waiting for future detonations.

Things to watch in 2014: Though the 2013 events cannot provide strong insight into whether the North plans to test a nuclear weapon again in 2014, it is clear that it can conduct a test quickly if the order should come from Pyongyang. Furthermore, because the number of tunnels is growing, North Korea can keep testing into the foreseeable future.

Sohae Rocket Test Facility

The site of Pyongyang's 2012 rocket launches, Sohae is five times larger than the North's older Tonghae test facility. Six new construction projects began in 2013, the most serious of which is intended to modify the pad used for previous tests of the Unha space-launch vehicle. When modification is finished, the new gantry will be able to fire an even bigger rocket -- reportedly 25 percent longer with a larger booster that can lift satellites into higher orbits. The new rocket's technology can also be used to develop missiles carrying warheads that will be able to fly intercontinental distances. If that isn't scary enough, the North appears to be constructing flat-launch pads for testing new mobile missiles still under development -- this includes the KN-08, a mobile intercontinental-range ballistic missile spotted in military parades in Pyongyang in 2012 and again in 2013, and pegged by the Pentagon as a potential threat to parts of the United States once it is deployed.

Throughout 2013, the North also conducted tests of large rocket engines, which is essential in its quest to develop bigger and better rockets. 

Things to watch in 2014: Aside from more tests of large rocket engines, construction of the modified launch pad should be complete by early spring, allowing the North to conduct full-scale launches of either its older Unha rocket or a new larger space-launch vehicle. Mobile missile tests could take place at any time after summer assuming the flat launch pads are completed by then.

Tonghae Rocket Test Facility

Operating since the mid-1980s, North Korea's oldest testing facility fell into disuse after a rocket launch in 2009 (most likely because the newer Sohae facility had been completed). However, a major construction program (first started in 2011 and then halted in late 2012) resumed in the fall of 2013 -- possibly because Pyongyang could be planning an active rocket development and space-launch program that requires another facility. In just eight weeks the North Koreans completed a new launch-control center and resumed construction of a rocket-assembly building. Work has yet to resume on a new pad that will also be suitable for launching larger rockets. Satellite pictures show nearby buildings under construction that will house fuel tanks three to four times larger than those needed to support launches of the Unha.

Things to watch for in 2014: Pyongyang may make significant progress in completing construction of new facilities at Tonghae -- the new launch pad, a rocket-assembly building, and fuel-tank buildings -- enabling it to use the newly modernized site for support firing large rockets in the future.

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The 250,000-feet vantage point unveils a hidden world just as disturbing, if not more so, than the one illuminated by the Frontline documentary. These images not only provide a glimpse of a dangerous future, but also demonstrate that "strategic patience" -- the Obama administration's policy toward North Korea -- is a failure.

If 2013 is any guide, 2014 will see similar advances as Pyongyang moves ahead with the building blocks needed to produce more nuclear weapons and the improved missiles needed to deliver them. Whether the Obama administration will finally realize that patience is not a virtue -- and that it is high time for a serious policy review about North Korea's intentions -- remains to be seen. But the odds are that 2014 will just mean more of the same in Washington. And even a satellite can tell you that's a bad idea.


The Return of Afghanistan’s Drug Den

How the Obama administration turned its back on counternarcotics, and why the Taliban is laughing all the way to the bank.

Two months after taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama gave a televised address that laid out sweeping goals for U.S. financial, military, and technical assistance to Afghanistan, among them developing an economy there "that isn't dominated by illicit drugs."

Since 2001, Washington has committed roughly $10 billion to its ambitious counternarcotics effort in the poverty-stricken country. But mostly due to reversals in the last two years, all that spending appears to have had little enduring impact, and Afghanistan's prospects for finding its financial footing outside the drug trade are now slim, an independent federal auditor told the Senate's Caucus on International Narcotics Control on Jan. 15.

"The situation in Afghanistan is dire with little prospect for improvement in 2014 or beyond," Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko told the caucus, recounting "the opinion of almost everyone I spoke with" about the growing role of narcotics in the country's economy during a November visit there.

In blunt testimony to the caucus chaired by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA.), Sopko cited statistics that cast an unflattering light on the costly U.S. effort, which is now winding down as the Obama administration prepares to pull additional troops from the country.

From 2012 to 2013, the value of Afghanistan's narcotics trade increased 50 percent, and it now accounts for 15 percent of the nation's gross domestic product. Poppy cultivation has reached record levels, with acreage now three times the level in 2002 and equivalent to plantings on land 12 times the size of the District of Columbia. Opium production alone increased nearly 50 percent in the last year. More than 5 percent of the Afghan populace is now addicted to opiates. Moreover, half of the existing poppy fields are now located in Helmand Province, the principal locus of the U.S. military's "surge" during Obama's first term.

This grim news is a boon to the Taliban, which is now drawing at least $155 million a year from narcotics-related activities, and investing the funds in insurgency, according to United Nations estimates. "The Taliban is involved in taxing opium poppy farmers; operating processing laboratories; moving narcotics; taxing narcotics transporters ... [and] providing security to poppy fields, drug labs, and opium bazaars," Drug Enforcement Administration chief of operations James Capra said in written testimony to the caucus.

Sopko warned that this booming narcotics trade is undermining the country's stability, threatening the health of its people, eroding the rule of law, and adding further to official corruption -- essentially threatening much of what the United States has tried to accomplish there over the past decade, at a total cost of more than $70 billion and 2,300 U.S. military deaths.

The Obama administration seems uninterested in shifting course, however. Its spending on the Pentagon's office of counternarcotics for work in Afghanistan is slated to decline by 20 percent this year, and in-country staffing by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of Homeland Security is dropping by half.

The military airlift and protection that DEA officers need to operate are mostly evaporating, Capra and other witnesses acknowledged. A special Afghan air unit, created with nearly $1 billion dollars in U.S. funding, only has a quarter of the personnel it needs, and few pilots rated to fly with the night vision goggles considered essential to counternarcotics raids. Total Afghan drug seizures in the first 9 months of last year amounted to 121 metric tons, compared with an estimated 5,500 tons of opium alone produced over the entire 12 months.

The DEA's anguish is palpable.

Capra said the military drawdown and staffing decreases will "significantly impact the scope of DEA's operations." While the Afghanistan government is still not capable of doing what its foreign partners have done to combat narcotics, specialized Afghan units have acquired important capabilities "at great cost," after "years of great sacrifice by DEA personnel and an enormous expenditure of U.S. government resources," he said. The erosion of this capability, he added, "puts at risk the U.S. strategic objective of achieving a stable and secure Afghanistan."

Erin Logan, the Defense Department's principal director for counternarcotics and global threats, was not optimistic. In her written testimony, she said "the drawdowns in U.S. and coalition military forces will likely lead to increased drug production and corresponding instability in Afghanistan and the region."

Sopko was particularly critical in his testimony of the fact that -- despite Obama's lofty words in 2009 -- counternarcotics has been a steadily declining priority for the administration's policy appointees.  The boots-on-the ground experts he spoke to during his visit all "told me that they are very worried that the United States and its coalition partners are not sufficiently focused on counternarcotics," he said.

The Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, an independent analysis group funded by aid donors in Kabul, seconded that view in a report last September. "Policymakers," it said, "seem to have lost all appetite for talking about the production and trade of opium."

The official U.S. disdain may stem partly from the sheer magnitude of the task and the endemic obstacles to its achievement in one of the poorest nations on Earth, where poppy-growing has long been a cultural and financial mainstay. As William Brownfield, the assistant secretary of state for international narcotics, cautioned in his written testimony for the hearing, "there is no silver bullet" to solve the narcotics problem, which surged amid chaotic conditions after the US intervention.

But the Obama administration seems aware -- without specifically acknowledging it -- that its vaunted "whole of government" approach to the problem, adopted in 2010 and meant to cultivate good governance practices and enhance counterinsurgency efforts in lieu of outright poppy eradication, hasn't yet turned the corner on the drug trade and isn't likely to anytime soon.

That approach was formulated after a 2009 visit to Afghanistan by the Pentagon's policy chief Michelle Flournoy, who warned Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that only a more integrated and comprehensive civilian-military aid program would work. Counternarcotics, she said in a memo to Gates that he quotes in his new book, Duty, was only one of four "competing -- and often conflicting -- campaigns" during the Bush years.

There is some evidence that the surge -- the addition of 21,000 U.S. troops and increased development investments at the beginning of Obama's first term -- made a difference. In Helmand, poppy cultivation declined by nearly 40 percent from 2008 to 2011, a circumstance attributed by experts mostly to the heightened foreign presence, Sopko said.

But by 2012, Gates had become convinced, he states in his book, that counternarcotics was a specialized mission that should be reexamined in light of declining resources. A U.S. troop pullout that began in 2011 accelerated in 2012, roughly the period when international experts and the Defense Department itself said the narcotics market expanded again.

Since then, Sopko testified, seizures of both narcotics and illicit chemicals have declined and counter-drug operations have dropped by nearly a third. He suggested that soon, DEA agents will be confined to Kabul, and decried what he called the administration's decision to cut DEA personnel arbitrarily and then tailor its strategy to the number of agents remaining, rather than pick a proven strategy first and then decide how many to retain.

"No one at the [U.S.] Embassy could convincingly explain to me how the U.S. government counternarcotics efforts are making a meaningful impact," Sopko said, adding that he was surprised to learn that little effort had been made over the past decade to examine carefully what worked and what didn't among the Western programs. How can the program succeed with fewer personnel if it has failed up to now? he asked. He raised the possibility that Afghanistan will become a "narco-criminal state" if a more sound strategy is not pursued.

Sen. Feinstein told the witnesses that "there is little good news" and cautioned that the grim statistics will be ignored "at our peril." She also said "we're looking for ideas," and urged in particular that the DEA find a way to collaborate with its counterparts in Russia and Iran, where a significant portion of Afghanistan's heroin moves.

The task of defending the administration's policies fell mostly to Brownfield, who cautioned that counter-drug strategies can take years to bear fruit, and said "I do not share" the pessimism expressed by so many others. He said that while he cannot promise success this year or next year, the United States and its partners have put in place "a sustainable and adaptable" program to keep building the Afghanistan government's ability to handle its drug problems.

I wish, Brownfield added, that it was a simple matter of writing up a strategy and having a checklist.

First published by the Center for Public Integrity

Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images