Curtis Melvin spends much of his day scrutinizing pictures of a country that does not like to be photographed—North Korea. He is a specialist in North Korean economic issues, and today he's studying satellite images from several of the country's northern districts, images that indicate road construction in places previously accessible only via railway. That, he thinks, suggests more North Koreans now have cars. Melvin also recently noticed the installation of cellphone towers in some remote parts of the country. The smartphone might not be ubiquitous there, as it seems to be everywhere else on the globe, but if all those towers are going up, more North Koreans must be talking on more cellphones of some kind.
Melvin is a senior fellow at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies' U.S.-Korea Institute, which engages in research on the Korean peninsula and works to encourage dialogue among scholars, policymakers, and anyone else interested in the two Koreas. He writes about what he finds in satellite photos for 38 North, an increasingly influential website co-founded by two SAIS North Korea experts, Jenny Town and Joel S. Wit. The site is not easily pigeonholed. It describes itself as devoted to analysis of North Korea, and it's part platform for debate, part breaking news, part commentary, part media critic, part curator of images and videos.
Town is the managing editor of 38 North. She was born in Busan, South Korea (known as Pusan before 2000), and lived in an orphanage until age 3. She was adopted by a family from Minnesota and grew up there. After graduating in 1998 from the now-defunct Westmar University in Iowa with a bachelor's degree in East Asian studies and international relations, Town worked as director of the Washington office of the College Board before moving back to South Korea in 2004 to teach English. She returned to the United States in 2006.
Wit is an expert on East Asian affairs and a senior fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute. In 1994, he traveled to North Korea, making him one of the first Americans to get inside the country in years, as an adviser to Ambassador Robert L. Gallucci. He has since visited the country nearly 20 times. Wit joined the institute in 2007, about the same time Town came on board as a consultant. Four years later, she was named assistant director of the institute.
The pair founded 38 North in 2010 in response to what they considered the mainstream media's superficial coverage of North Korea. The conventional depiction of the closed country is that it is a failed state, a hermit kingdom ruled by crazy leaders who maintain massive armed forces and threaten nuclear strikes against the United States and its allies. Town and Wit believe the truth to be more nuanced. "We saw 38 North as a response to generally bad reporting and lazy analysis of North Korea [in mainstream news media]," Town says. "People didn't feel like they needed to follow any journalistic or academic standards because there was so little information and access. Anyone who ever read a book on North Korea was suddenly an expert. There was just this low bar of expertise." Wit concurs: "You had all these people writing and doing analysis who had no experience or direct contact with anyone from North Korea, at least most of them. I thought we had something new to offer."
Wit's concept for the website was a place where North Korea could be discussed not by self-anointed experts with dubious claims to expertise but by those who have had actual experience of the country. Wit knew many of them from his time in the U.S. State Department, including persons who worked on North Korean nuclear disarmament treaties in the 1980s and 1990s, when there was greater access to the country. These individuals, Wit says, provide a baseline for analysis of the current situation in North Korea. The site's list of contributors, now in the dozens, includes former diplomats, former intelligence analysts, scholars, NGO workers, and businessmen who deal with North Korea. Sometimes Town and Wit confer with members of the foreign diplomatic corps and others who have recently visited the country. "It's rather informal," Town says. "We'll ask general questions like, 'So, what are you seeing? How has it changed? What is your interpretation of this?' Just to find out any new bit of information to get a sense of what we should potentially be focusing on."
In 2011, the site began to purchase commercial satellite imagery from providers such as U.S.-based DigitalGlobe and French-owned Airbus Defence and Space. This was the beginning of 38 North's photo intelligence work. Town and Wit call on their cadre of image analysts, mostly retired former intelligence analysts, to examine areas of interest captured in the photos and assess whether significant developments have taken place. Sometimes they scrutinize images to see if the pictures support statements from either North Korean or international media sources.
In May, Melvin, who is also editor of North Korean Economy Watch, an online news and analysis site, published information about a new highway that, once completed, will offer Pyongyang its first true international trade route on a paved highway and open up new trading opportunities with China. He has to pore over the satellite pictures for indications of a factory expansion or a new transportation hub because that's the only way to track changes in North Korean economic activity and military spending. "North Korea has not published a [state] budget since 2001 or ever published its gross domestic product," says Melvin. "We have to estimate trade statistics and strength of the economy by looking at investments in infrastructure and other projects. We have to cobble this together and figure it out. They're not telling us."
It was pictures of a North Korean launch site, which the country claimed was only for rockets ferrying satellites into space, that first raised 38 North's profile and caused major news operations to take notice. In April 2012, North Korea was preparing to celebrate the 100th birthday of former "supreme leader" Kim Il Sung. The South Korean defense ministry claimed the North Koreans might use the national celebration to test a long-range missile—banned under United Nations resolutions—disguised as a satellite launch. 38 North first published a report to ascertain how, if this was true, the rocket would be moved from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station's assembly building to the launch pad. Using satellite images of the facility, 38 North analysts the next day pointed out activity that was indeed indicative of an impending launch—a truck delivering fuel to the platform, equipment being loaded onto the gantry, vegetation cut back to prevent fires upon liftoff. The carefully labeled images turned heads. Previously, when 38 North published new articles it would generate about 1,500 visits to the site. Within hours of publishing about the missile launch, the site registered 20,000 hits. "We instantly knew we were onto something," Town says. "But we also knew we had to be careful and couch anything we post by saying, 'This is what we expect to happen based on prediction models.'" The rocket did in fact launch but flew just briefly before breaking up and crashing into waters off the Korean peninsula.
Since that heady experience, 38 North has broken more news on North Korean military activity, eliciting coverage in media outlets such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, and CNN. In October 2014, the site first reported North Korea's development of a new class of submarine, along with a test stand for the vertical launch of sea-based ballistic missiles at the Sinpo South Shipyard, where the submarine was seen berthed. The analysis and satellite imagery offered compelling support for stories that North Korea was developing new military capability and augmenting its navy. But Town steps back from the idea that 38 North is primarily a news site. "We offer expert analysis of events in and around North Korea that sometimes breaks news," she says. "We don't claim to be journalists."
38 North hosts a variety of commentators, including novelist James Church. Church, a former Western intelligence operative with decades of experience in Asia, has written a series of novels, including A Corpse in the Koryo and A Drop of Chinese Blood, that feature a North Korean policeman, Inspector O. For 38 North, Church contributes fictional dialogues between himself and O, a novelist chatting with his own character. One example starts with Church playfully asking O, "Seen any good movies lately?" The conversation then turns into a snappy debate about The Interview, starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, a Hollywood comedy about a pair of celebrities sent to assassinate North Korean premier Kim Jong Un on their visit to Pyongyang. The Interview outraged North Korean officials and may have led to the notorious hacking of Sony Pictures' email server in 2014. Those same officials may not be fans of Church's dialogues with Inspector O, either.
Town says 38 North has on occasion ruffled feathers in South Korea, too. "They don't like to admit it, but South Korea can be as good at propaganda as the North Koreans," she says. "They often use North Korea to divert attention from their own domestic issues." She gives the example of the Sewol disaster, the South Korean ferry that sank on April 16, 2014, killing 304 people, many of them high school students on their way to a field trip to Jeju island. When President Obama went to South Korea later that month, the South Korean defense ministry announced that North Korea was preparing a nuclear weapons test in response to his visit. But Town says that 38 North's satellite data didn't show any signs of an impending test, and the site reported that.
The South Korean defense ministry contradicted 38 North's assertion, arguing that the government had better intelligence and insight, and that 38 North's sources had used outdated analytical methods. "It's highly possible they have more imagery than we have," Town says. "They might have spies on the ground, too. But based on what we saw, there were no signs of an impending test." The president's trip came and went, and no missile test ever occurred. 38 North got it right.
They don't always. The site once published a story about the construction of a possible missile-launch control center, pointing in the satellite image to an orange spot surrounded by building materials. Later, the site had to amend the story when it became clear the images were of a sawdust pile.
Town describes North Korea as still a relatively poor country and a Stalinist state, which is the standard picture of the country in mainstream American media. "But they are slowly moving into what would be called a modern mindset," she says. "The average person thinks of North Korea as this closed-off place, dystopian and never changing. But that's not true. Sure, it doesn't move at the same pace as the Western world, but it evolves and changes."
Since Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011, she points out, the country has seen more rapid change. Analysts estimate there are more than 3 million North Korean cellphone users now—that might explain all those new towers—and more people are gaining Internet access, though that number still totals in the thousands in a nation of 25 million people. Town says there's also been a loosening of market control and the fostering of some quasi-entrepreneurial endeavors. North Korea now has three taxi companies, for example, and some fast food restaurants and coffee shops, as well as water parks and other amusement sites. "There are also variety shows on television, although it's more Lawrence Welk than Miley Cyrus," Town says.
Roberta Cohen, a nonresident senior fellow in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution and a leading expert on internally displaced persons and human rights inside North Korea, says 38 North is not just well-known inside the Beltway; it has an ever-increasing reach. Cohen, who herself has written for 38 North on human rights issues, says she knows firsthand the site has garnered a lot of attention among United Nations staff, who cite stories they've read there. After one of her articles ran in 38 North, she made copies to hand out to U.N. staffers. When she got to New York, she learned they had all read the article already.
"I think the site has a wide reach and appeal, beyond those who are solely interested in the nuclear problem," Cohen says. "They publish on a wide spectrum of issues, and the site has become known as a place with interesting, well-informed opinions on policy-relevant issues. If you're interested in agricultural reform or human rights in North Korea, you know to check out 38 North, as they've probably published something recently on the topic. They follow the critical events and know what is going on. And you know you'll get an interesting take on the subject, whether you agree with their opinion or not. They have a finger on the pulse."
38 North's creators now post two to three stories a week and the institute recently hired a full-time staff member who serves as a research and production assistant. They plan to bring in more production and editorial staff, with an aim to redesign the site in early 2016. Wit says the plan is to integrate more multimedia and enhanced 3-D rendering aided by thermal imagery. "We want to go beyond weapons of mass destruction and do more with economic sites, mining, and transportation," he says.
Influencing policy, Wit says, might be a bridge too far. "Our main objective is just to inject information for public discussion," he says. "I think we've already succeeded a lot in doing that. And I think media discussion on the North has improved in the past few years. I'm not sure we can take credit for that, but maybe all the hundreds of articles we've published have had an effect."