What does a barely readable map on the desk of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in a propaganda photo say about Pyongyang’s increasingly capable missile and nuclear weapons programs and how Japan fits into its military doctrine?
A lot, it turns out.
A new imagery analysis obtained exclusively by The Japan Times sheds some light on how the North views Japan and Tokyo’s American protector as it seeks to master the technology needed to mount a nuclear warhead on a long-range missile capable of striking anywhere in the United States, a goal it inched closer to Friday with a second successful intercontinental ballistic missile test.
One image, taken from the North’s July 4 launch of the Hwasong-14 (HS-14) — its first ICBM — shows Kim observing the test through binoculars, his elbows planted firmly on a wooden desk with a virtually unreadable map of the missile’s trajectory spread across it.
Indecipherable to some, the photo languished as just one of scores of propaganda shots dispersed by the regime. That was until Nathan Hunt, an open-source intelligence analyst with the Washington-based Strategic Sentinel defense contractor, had a go at making the unreadable readable.
Through a complicated process using forensic image processing techniques to unskew and de-blur the photo, Hunt was able to craft a reproduction of how it might look to Kim as he sat at his observation desk.
Comparing the reassembled and readable map to a similar one seen in photos released by the North from its May 14 launch of an intermediate-range Hwasong-12 (HS-12) missile, Hunt was able to glean potentially key insights into the country’s missile-testing doctrine, and how neighboring Japan fits into the process.
On the map was something not seen before — a projected trajectory that “could have potentially put the missile inside Japan’s territorial waters,” the imagery analysis report prepared by the defense contractor said.
Territorial waters, as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, are coastal waters extending at most 12 nautical miles (22 km) from a country’s coastline.
Despite lobbing a number of missiles into the Sea of Japan, including within Japan’s exclusive economic zone, which extends 200 nautical miles (370 km) from its coast, the North has yet to fling one so dangerously close to Japanese territory as seen in the reproduced image.
In March, rocketry experts with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California used a method of map-analyzation similar to Hunt’s to determine that a military drill that fired four extended-range (ER) Scud missiles into waters off the coasts of Aomori and Akita prefectures had been intended to simulate the range needed to conduct a nuclear attack on U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture.
That was the first time the North Koreans had been specific about plans for attacking U.S. forces in Japan with nuclear weapons, which they said would be used to “repel” a potential invasion.
But a test-firing by the North into or near Japan’s territorial waters would have “damaging consequences … even if they never intended the missile to fly that far and impact at that point,” the report said.
“Such a move would be dangerous on the part of North Korea and could have resulted in a military response from Japan to safeguard its territory,” it said.
Likely, said John Schilling, a North Korea expert and aerospace engineer, the map was purposely displayed by the regime in Pyongyang as an indication of its newfound capabilities.
“I think it is very likely that North Korea either intended to signal that the ICBM test could have reached the edge of Japanese territorial waters, or intended the missile to actually reach Japanese waters and fell short, but there is no way to know which,” Schilling said.
This sentiment was echoed by Ryan Barenklau, author of the image analysis report and CEO of Strategic Sentinel. “North Korea is becoming more bold as it gains experience with its arsenal and is progressing with its technology, inching itself along, testing the waters, seeing what the reactions are from their nudges against the status quo,” he said.
About Kim’s map display in the photo, Barenklau was clear: “I believe this was strategic signaling to the West more so than anything else.”
The North’s signaling, experts say, goes far beyond merely the July 4 and Iwakuni maps. It has long been a part of Pyongyang’s modus operandi. From its state-run propaganda machine, the North often releases tantalizing tidbits of information that analysts pore over to glean whatever information they can about the isolated and opaque regime.
Sometimes, this can lead to overthinking on the part of analysts, cautioned Joshua Pollack, editor of the U.S.-based Nonproliferation Review and a leading expert on nuclear and missile proliferation.
While Pollack called the new imagery analysis “very interesting,” he does not believe the map was an intentional signal in this instance.
“They didn’t make it especially easy to read this time,” he said. “Not everything is a prop.”
Instead, he suggested that the North had either “decided at the last minute to give themselves a greater margin of comfort, and the map didn’t reflect that” or simply missed their target.
“Either is possible,” Pollack added. “It’s a new missile and they’re flirting with the edge here.”
Still, the displays have grown increasingly worrisome for Japan, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Saturday labeling the North Korean threat to the country “grave and real.”
Japan, which hosts a large number of U.S. military bases, would be the staging point from which U.S. troops and materiel flowed through in the event of any conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea, by showing again that U.S. outposts — and Japanese cities — faced the risk of retaliation under such a scenario, has offered a clear warning to Tokyo: remain allied with the United States at your own peril.
“On the military front, Japan plays a critical role in U.S. strategy for defending South Korea, or attacking North Korea if it comes to that,” Schilling said.
The U.S. military has long known that its bases in South Korea would be the first to be attacked in any conflict, and so has maintained major logistics facilities, airfields, as well as the home port of the U.S. Navy’s 7th fleet, in Japan. U.S. forces there were, until recently, widely seen as immune to any North Korean strike.
But if the North, through its bluster and threats could persuade Japan to close its bases and its airspace to the U.S. in wartime, that would be a major blow in any conflict, Schilling said.
“The primary target of any North Korean ICBM is almost certainly the United States, but if having Kim pose in front of a map lets them also send a ‘we can kill you too, and we’re thinking about it’ message to Japan on the side, it would not be out of character for them to send that message,” he added.
“They can kill plenty of Japanese with proven Scud-ER and Nodong missiles, so this would just be a reminder.”