According to a team of analysts gathered by the New York Times, North Korea recently released a propaganda photo that lacked the usual signs of photo-doctoring Kim Jong Un utilizes for nearly all official pictures released by his regime.  Nearly every official photograph of the reclusive world leader is manipulated by North Korean officials at least slightly, usually in favor of improving Kim’s looks and healthy appearance, so why would he choose to omit the Dictator-Instagram filter from a recent picture of him alongside the country’s first miniaturized nuclear warhead?

To send a message to intelligence analysts in the West.

Although the seemingly simple photograph depicts Kim Jong Un speaking to a group of people in plain clothes, taking notes in a semi-circle around Kim and the weapon, to many, the most important focal points of the photograph don’t involve the world leader at all.

North Korean propaganda photographs are often easy to spot, and they tend to take little time to be picked apart by American intelligence analysts – who can use the details of the photograph to infer specifics about equipment or weapon systems that often contradict Kim’s grandiose claims.  However, this otherwise unremarkable photograph lacks those tell-tale signs of North Korean exaggeration for an important reason: it seems their missile program may actually be as dangerous as they claim – or at least it could be soon.

“This is being offered as evidence. This is supposed to be proof,” Melissa Hanham of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies claimed.  She and her team analyzed this photograph and compared it to others gathered by external North Korean propaganda and Western intelligence sources.

The bomb itself, dubbed the “disco ball,” is the appropriate size (estimated at approximately 60 centimeters in diameter) to be mounted on a ballistic missile platform.  By extrapolating weight from those dimensions, experts have determined its payload to be just about comparable to the bombs the United States dropped on Japan at the end of WWII, or 20 kilotons.  The plug sticking out of the bomb could either be a detonator or a means to inject gas into the warhead, improving its efficiency and reducing the amount of weaponized plutonium required for each missile.  If true, this would allow North Korea to build more missiles with less plutonium per warhead without reducing destructive power.

The clothing of those in the image also tells a story.  Kim is wearing a jacket that is either a replica of one commonly worn by his grandfather, or his grandfather’s actual garment.  Although struggling economically, Kim’s jacket is a choice, not a hand-me-down.  The North Korean leader is attempting to draw parallels between himself and his grandfather, who positioned himself as the center of all authority within the government, unlike Kim’s father who delegated responsibilities to various department and section leaders.

Image of Kim Il-Sung originally printed in North Korean propaganda magazine, re-released by the New York Times

The lack of military uniforms shown in the image could serve to reinforce that message – as the nuclear weapon is obviously a military project, but Kim’s stance over the weapon and decision to leave military personnel in civilian clothing emphasizes his dominion over the project, hence the attentive note taking on the parts of those actually responsible for the weapon system.

Most important, however, is the green and brown background.  The white lettering on the side of the missile can be translated to the word “support,” meaning those are the locations that the missile structure is strongest, and therefore where the weight of the weapon can be rested.  Missiles have the most structural rigidity between the tanks housed internally, giving David Schmerler, of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, enough information to deduce the number and size of the tanks housed within the missile, granting him the ability to determine the amount and type of fuel intended to be used – which gives him a sense of the range this missile is capable of: which is enough to potentially reach Washington DC, and make North Korea’s ICBM program a truly global threat.

This image from the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies shows the confirmed range of N.K.s ballistic missile program in red, with the potential range of the missile shown in the picture using red dotted lines.

Now, that isn’t to say that North Korea currently has an engine capable of that duration of flight, but it does mean that North Korea is closer to establishing the ability to launch a nuclear warhead anywhere in the world, rather than just within their own backyard as was previously assumed.

Of course, these estimates are nothing more than an exercise in deductive reasoning and extrapolation, meaning they can be seen as nothing more than educated guesses as to just what is going on behind the closed doors of North Korea’s Chamjin missile factory just outside Pyongyang.  If North Korean officials did indeed choose to omit their traditional image doctoring in hopes Western analysts would come to these conclusions (and begin to worry about North Korea’s impending nuclear reach) it seems logical to consider that everything in the photograph is staged – and potentially not even real.

Until we know for sure though, it seems prudent to ask ourselves, “what if?”


Image courtesy of the New York Times