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Satellite Images: North Korea Is Expanding Its Weapons Program


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to travel to North Korea later this week. He'll continue high-level negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea. President Trump tweeted this morning that those conversations are going well and that there have been, quote, "no rocket launches or nuclear testing in eight months" from North Korea.

But it appears that North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, is expanding his nation's weapons program despite promises made at June's summit in Singapore. Recent satellite images show that Pyongyang is building out a ballistic missile facility. Earlier, we spoke with David Schmerler. He's a research associate at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey (ph).

Good morning, David.

DAVID SCHMERLER: Good morning.

KING: All right, so you've been looking at these satellite images. What do you see?

SCHMERLER: So midway through last year, Kim Jong Un visited a site called the Chemical Material Institute. And it's at this site where they build complex kind of carbon materials and composite materials to help, I guess, make a more advanced ballistic missile fleet, if you would. And at the end of that visit mid last year, Kim Jong Un was shown a giant rendering of what the expansion to this site would look like. And the satellite imagery is showing that the expansion work is close to if not complete.

KING: What do the satellite images show? What are you looking at when you're looking at them?

SCHMERLER: The site is a bunch of large construction halls and warehouses that are going to hold a lot of the machines that they're going to use, has a couple of long warehouses and a manicured yard or kind of a lawn-like setup with probably a couple statues that'll go there.

KING: When you say this facility is making composite materials, what do you mean? Does that mean that they are not making nuclear weapons or nuclear material there?

SCHMERLER: Sure. So the site isn't actually related to the production of nuclear material, but it's used to build new types of structures and materials for their ballistic missile fleet. So one of the things they do is a fiber-wound casing, which they're going to use for their solid fuel missiles. And instead of using metal, they use this fiber-wound material, which is lighter and sometimes as strong, if not stronger, than metal, allowing the missiles to fly slightly farther because they're lighter.

They're also producing the tips of the nose cones for their re-entry vehicle. These types of carbon-carbon material are ablative, and they help ensure that their nuclear weapons survive re-entry, which is one of the things that many people have been questioning when it comes to North Korea's missile capabilities.

KING: OK, so not nuclear material itself but important parts for nuclear missiles.


KING: How did you come across these images?

SCHMERLER: So one of the things we do at CNS with a bunch of my colleagues and co-workers, like Jeffrey Lewis, is we geolocate where Kim Jong Un goes. Whenever he is reported on TV going to a site that is related to a WMD, I guess, function or part of their WMD program, we take the state propaganda. We find out where Kim Jong Un was or where he is, I guess, and we build a giant database of locations that play certain roles in North Korea's WMD program.

And then we work with companies up in San Francisco, like Planet Labs, who take pictures of the entire world every day, and we monitor these sites pretty much every morning to see if they're growing, if nothing's happening or if they're tearing them down.

KING: I mean, does the fact that you are an analyst and you were able to see these images - does that mean that Kim Jong Un does not seem particularly interested in hiding what's going on?

SCHMERLER: No, not really. One of the interesting things about North Korea's WMD program is that they have sites all across the country. And a lot of these sites are underground. They've been building sites deep underground in mountains since the end of the Korean War. So a lot of the sites that we don't know about or that we have seen some images from the inside and we've been able to locate them are in these large, underground sites. But not all of them are. And it seems like this site is one of those sites that's not deep underground.

KING: Not deep underground. OK.


KING: And just quickly before we let you go, is this a facility that the U.S. government has been monitoring?

SCHMERLER: I'd be surprised if they weren't. The U.S. government has a lot of resources that we in the open source and in academia don't have. So I'm pretty sure they knew it was there.

KING: David Schmerler is a research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

David, thank you.

SCHMERLER: Yeah. Thank for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.