[FPSPACE] Reflections on What we learned from North Korea's rocket no-show

Keith Gottschalk kgottschalk at uwc.ac.za
Sat Apr 28 08:21:55 EDT 2012

    thanks, much appreciated! A few quick reflections on the
censorship, showcasing, etc.
A journalist friend was amongst the first allowed in to the DPRK about
a quarter-century ago, specifically as a journalist, invited by their
Info. Dept, to show how nice they are.
But other govt. depts banned visas to any foreign journalist as
"spies". So his minder had to negotiate with him that he could only take
photos when officials from other govt. depts were not around.
    Similarly, one dept. of the DPRK was flattered when a group of
Scottish retired railwaymen came decades ago for that specifically
British working-class hobby of train spotting. This was heralded by the
relevant govt. dept as working class-to working class solidarity
tourism. The entire purpose of their trip was of course to stand on top
of road bridges going over railway lines. Each time steam engines
approached, they'd all whip out their notebooks to record 2-6-2 or
whatever (2 front wheels-six driving wheels-2 bogie wheels), plus the
registration no on the side of the steam engine, & any other fun
    But each time they did, their Korean guides were panic-stricken at
what they could only regard as "industrial espionage". They kept
repeatedly whispering to my friend "what are they doing?" & had to be
repeatedly re-assured that this was their hobby, exactly what they did
at home on Scottish railways.
  So when an official of one govt. dept says you will be allowed to see
X, he might be lying - or he might simply find his boss overruled by the
boss of another dept.
2) "an unwavering view that ferocious devotion to the Great Leader
would guarantee success for all efforts."
   Please remember that they HAVE to do this in public, to avoid being
demoted, fired, or detained on suspicion of counter-revolutionary
sympathies. Only if one Korean is alone with you, & he really trusts
you, & he's checked the room for bugs, dare he whisper his secret
contrary views to you.  When the first Chinese academics visited my
university in the early 1990s, it was the same. Only in recent years are
Chinese academics abroad much more relaxed, though guarded & watch their
   For the PRC's first three decades, 1949-79, all western visitors
were taken to only the six same collective farms in a country of one
billion people! They were probably also defensive about the fact that
while people like me from 3rd world countries find it "normal" to have
shantytowns, beggars at every traffic lights and car park, etc, whereas
westerners would take this as proof of backwardness, compared to what
they're used to.
     One western group was taken off see how beneficial PRC rule was
towards pastoralist clans in Sinkiang & Inner Mongolia. They were
entertained royally in tents while joyful pastoralists did folk dances
etc. The more perceptive amongst them felt that something was wrong, but
couldn't but their finger on it.
    After their third such visit to a tented village, it dawned on
them. In each village they were shown, there were only handsome young
men & beautiful women. There were no elderly persons, & no young
children. It turned out the westerners were being entertained by the
professional folk dancing ensembles of the state theatre. When one of
the visitors discreetly pulled up a corner of the groundsheet in one of
these tents, he saw fresh green grass underneath. In short, it was not a
real peasant's homestead tent, but had just been rigged up for their
visit.  The relevance of this is that the DPRK leadership will be more
familiar with the PRC than other countries.
   Yesterday South African newspapers published a German analysts'
report that the DPRK biggest new missiles on public parade this weekend
were metal mockups with a skin too thin to have structural strength for
fueling or flight. No doubt some FPSPACERs have already seen the full
report. This was also done by Nasser in Egypt in the early 1960s - but
the 1967 war proved that not one such rocket was every built or fired.
   The interesting bit will be to watch to see how long glasnost takes
to come to north Korea. Years or decades? Will the DPRK try to have one
satellite launch per year from now on? & what will JimO & westerners be
shown on each annual visit? When the DPRK make such decisions, one
factor will be the relative weight they place on making propaganda to
show how menacing their missile is, versus showcasing how advanced their
hi-tech prestige is.
- Keith

>>> On 2012/04/27 at 05:49 PM, in message
<249775DC1ED84DB69790A8F4A30C5D24 at ownerfbf08f40c>, "James E Oberg"
<jameseoberg at comcast.net> wrote:

What we learned from North Korea's rocket no-show 
Lessons drawn from what we saw, and didn't see, during unprecedented
press tour
By James Oberg , NBC News space analyst  // April 27/ 08:50 EDT
Looking back on what we were shown — and what was not shown — during
our unprecedented press tour of North Korea's space facilities, I
realize that both these aspects of reality had lessons for us. The very
absence of some expected features of the trip strongly indicated the
presence of important features of North Korea. 
That sounds bizarre — how can you see something by not seeing
something? But it’s why I was along on the trip. My designation, as
shown on my identification tag, was "NBC space consultant," and that set
me apart. It wasn’t the first time.
When I had made my first commercial inspection trip to Russia’s
Baikonur Cosmodrome in the mid-1990s, my client had a strange request.
His team was considering renting a Russian rocket to launch one of their
communications satellites from that spaceport in Kazakhstan.
"Our engineers will evaluate what the Russians are telling us and
showing us," he told me. "Your job will be to find out what they’re not
telling or showing us."
That was actually easier than it sounded. Because of the tightly
interlaced themes of "rocket science," revelations in one area had
implications in other areas. A description of one capability or
requirement often implied the existence of specific support technologies
that did not need to be identified explicitly. Gaps in descriptions —
deliberate or accidental — were usually betrayed by those missing
That was a successful inspection trip, and my client chose to go with
the Russian launch offer. Based on the assessments of their own team and
the gaps that my nosing around filled in, the project worked out fine,
and the satellite was later launched without incident.
That approach worked well in North Korea, too, as our NBC team was
shown and told a lot about their space satellite plans — and just as
obviously, not shown and told a lot.  But disclosure of some things
often betrayed attempts to hide other things.
.What we did see made headlines, and deservedly so. We were the first
foreigners ever to visit any of the North Korean launch bases — for us,
the new base at Sohae, in far northwestern North Korea.  We were the
first to be shown, up close, a real rocket and what probably turned out
to be a real (if unusual) satellite. And we were the first visitors to
their satellite control center, northeast of Pyongyang.  
Shows, secrets and make-believe 
But before reviewing the on-scene space facilities, I want to describe
another escorted "show" put on by our hosts, because it may help explain
the space visits more clearly.
This happened on our last day in North Korea, after the anniversary
parade. Our team had requested scenes of everyday life, so our escort
got us a minivan for just our crew, and off we went.
Parks and monuments were easy enough to locate, but our central request
was for an "ordinary store" with "ordinary shoppers." As we drove
through Pyongyang, we spotted neighborhoods of interest. But each one
was waved off with excuses about parking, or one-way traffic, or other
superficially plausible reasons. 
Finally, near the copy of France’s Arc de Triomphe, there was an
opportunity, and we pulled over. We hustled into a very impressive
building with a very impressive general store, and taped the desired
Hearing that there was an art store on the second floor, we detoured on
the way back to the minivan and went shopping. Some of the material was
in fact very attractive, and we made a number of purchases, discussing
them over a snack at a restaurant on the first floor.
But we had stayed in the shopping center far longer than we had
intended — or, as it turned out, than our escort had intended. Heading
back upstairs to complete some art purchases, we were startled to cross
paths with another group entering the building: other journalists from
our hotel, also being shown a "typical" North Korean shopping scene. We
laughed about the coincidence, and after completing our purchases
laughed again on the way downstairs when a third group of guests from
our hotel showed up.
It was no coincidence at all, obviously.
Watching from outside while the minivan was brought up, I saw the
pedestrian traffic patterns that explained it. Off down the side street
was a military checkpoint, apparently a compound for families of
high-ranking officers. The people coming into and out of the shops were
coming and going to that compound. Behind me, along the public street,
people walked past on their own errands — and I didn’t see any of them
stop to enter the shops we had been shown. 
In this case, the set-up was obvious, even if revealed only by
accident. What we had asked to see — a typical store with typical
shoppers in Pyongyang — was never delivered. Instead, we were
manipulated into "coming across" a seemingly random store that was
actually exactly the one our handler had been aiming for all along, in a
longstanding plan to fool us.
We were shown everything except the only thing we had been looking for.
And the space tours, perhaps, had been no different.
Face-to-face false promises 
It had been at the main satellite control center that a face-to-face
confrontation between me and the center’s director turned the spotlight
on the first big thing we had not been shown at the launch base two days
.As the only "rocket scientist" in the press group, I was treated with
great respect. So I was hustled into the viewing gallery ahead of
everyone else and seated next to the center director. 
He proceeded to give a speech about the peaceful intent of the launch
and how our visit had verified this to the world. Before we could get
into an argument over that, he made fun of foreign doubters and said
that to prove the satellite we’d seen at the launch base was really
going into space, he would have his team rig a seat — with parachute —
for a skeptical journalist to ride into space next to the satellite, and
return to testify as to what he’d seen. 
In the face of several still-skeptical questions from other news teams,
he repeated his offer in several variations. He was highly impressed
with the humor of his idea. This was going nowhere.
"I’ll go," I interjected into the dispute. "But we don’t need that to
prove the claim. All we really need are photographs of the satellite
being installed."
No problem, he replied. "We will give you such photographs," was his
answer through the interpreter.
That wasn’t good enough for me. Fortunately one of the hundred or so
Korean words I’d memorized for the trip popped into my mind. Leaning
forward and looking him in the eye, I simply said "Eon-je?" His eyes
The interpreter stammered at the linguistic flow reversal. But he
quickly recovered and said, "When?"
He brushed the question aside — "Soon!" — and went on to another
subject. I left him my hotel room number, for any photographs. 
In the end, of course, the world never did get to see those promised
photographs. By now, weeks later, it would be too late. There’s been
plenty of time to stage them or otherwise fake them. The window of
opportunity for proving the central point of the entire foreign
inspection — that the rocket was carrying a small science payload, and
only that — had closed soon after the false promise was made.
We never did get proof of what really was under that nose cone atop the
rocket. This was the core of the North Korean claim — that the presence
of a "peaceful satellite" made the launch "peaceful." Although there
were multiple ways they could have easily proved what the actual
contents were, and although they repeatedly promised they would do so,
in the end they never provided any such proof. 
We had been shown everything around the one thing we had expected to be
shown — but not that one thing itself. As with the special store,
perhaps they expected us to see what we had wanted, even when they
switched it out for something entirely different.
The biggest no-show 
Friday, April 13, dawned foggy, but the sky soon cleared. It was the
second day of the announced four-day-long launch window. We gathered in
the press room at the Yang Gak Do hotel, and our escorts described the
cultural events we would soon be loading onto buses for. The white
screen that had been set up in the front of the room, where we expected
to see the launch live, remained unlit.
Then, shortly after 8 a.m., telephone calls and emails began arriving
from colleagues outside the country. The rocket had already been
launched, we learned. Within minutes we got further word, relayed from
South Korea and Japan, that it had failed.
Not watching it in real time was a bummer, to be sure. That had been an
explicit promise, to us and to the world. And in terms of insight into
the event, it was a major disappointment.
That’s because our news team had privately worked out a plan to try to
observe the rocket in the sky during its ascent — from where we were, in
Pyongyang. The rocket was going to pass about 60 miles (100 kilometers)
west of us, more than halfway up the sky. This was based on my initial
back-of-the-envelope estimates, supplemented by detailed calculations
emailed to me from experts in the U.S. 
While the rocket flame wasn’t expected to be super bright, I thought
we’d have a good chance of detecting the ascent visually, and seeing
the second-stage separation. I’d seen a few medium-sized rockets of
similar type over the years at that range, and had brought my binoculars
to help spot this one.
It was a challenge to devise a plan to get outside quickly once launch
was seen on the front screen. One door that would be critical was
usually kept locked. Other doors in the hotel were just too far away. 
We also discussed the issue with our escorts, that we wanted to go
outside as soon as launch occurred. That may have been a mistake. But
had we caught them by surprise by running for the door at liftoff, their
reaction might well have been severe.
The original explicit promise for the observation visit was to watch
the launch live. Exactly where wasn’t specified, but real-time
witnessing was specifically spelled out. 
But for some reason, a high official decided to renege on that promise.
Whether our known plans for direct non-censorable observations had
anything to do with it or not, we were never given the chance to make
those observations, because we weren't told in time that the launch had
Had we been outside and filming, I have no doubt we would have seen and
recorded the explosion that destroyed the rocket. If other news crews
had seen us running for the door and followed us, there would have been
multiple tapes. Diagnosing the cause of the disaster, and locating the
rocket’s debris, would have been made easier.
But it was not to be. A deliberate North Korean strategy of not showing
us something that they had originally promised to show us eliminated
that possibility.
For the rest of the trip, it was a classic "Rocket? What rocket?"
routine. All the officials acted as if there never had been a rocket,
and we were here only to celebrate the Kim Il Sung centennial. No
explanation — or even an explanation for the lack of an explanation —
was ever offered. No official ever mentioned ‘rockets’ to us again.
What does 'not telling' tell us? 
The first lesson from these two enormously disappointing cover-ups is
that it wasn’t real transparency, but only the illusion of transparency,
that most likely had always been the activity’s intent. Cynics warned
that this would be the case from the start.
In secondary areas of insight — which exact building does which
function at the launch site — we learned a lot. But in the central focus
of the show-and-tell — what was actually aboard the rocket — we were
told, but we weren’t shown.
The second lesson is more uplifting. We really did learn a lot,
including things the North Koreans probably didn’t expect us to notice.
The hitherto-top-secret location of the satellite control center is one
example. The much-more-massive launch gantry at the new launch pad is
another. Other new insights are still being evaluated.
Another insight is that they clearly were totally blindsided by the
failure. There was no "Plan B," involving a credible and candid reaction
of the kind that the world press had come to expect. This apparently
sincere astonishment is completely consistent with the leadership styles
I had seen — and remarked on — earlier, an unwavering view that
ferocious devotion to the Great Leader would guarantee success for all
efforts. That had been an early warning sign of impending disaster that
I had passed on to my news team. 
In hindsight, not showing the launch live probably didn’t involve
damage-limitation calculations at all. It seems they had never installed
the communications equipment at the hotel that could have shown the
launch live. It had been an empty promise all along.
So it remains true that in rocket science, at least, plans to control
outsiders' insight by deliberately partial disclosure usually fail. And
even when we know in advance that such a strategy seeks to exploit our
presence, it’s worth going anyway, if we prepare adequately to see what
is unseen and hear what is untold. I’m ready to pack my bags again for
anywhere else where they want to play that game.

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