The treacly martial music plays in the background while Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader—the third Kim to rule his country, the world’s only hereditary Stalinist dictatorship—looks out on water. He is on a boat, bobbing up and down, dressed in a black peacoat and wide-brimmed hat. The mountains behind the sea are lavender; the sky is faded rose gold. It is dawn, or dusk, or nearly either. Suddenly, a missile pierces the choppy water. As it shoots upward, it looks like a warped sunrise, the engine’s blast reflecting over the surface of the water. It surges toward the cloud line, slices it, and rises toward the darkness.
The narrator on KCTV, North Korea’s official television network, is rapt. The test of the submarine-launched ballistic missile, or SLBM, appears to be a success. The launch is shown from multiple perspectives. Kim Jong-un smiles for the camera.
But here’s the thing: the test was a composite. It was doctored. A fake. And we know this not thanks to the U.S. government or its allies; or the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); or the United Nations; but because of the keen detective work of the researchers and analysts in the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) at Middlebury’s Institute for International Studies at Monterey (MIIS).
This group—led by Jeffrey Lewis, the program’s director—knows more about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program than almost anyone on this planet not currently working for a government agency. “Time and time again, the reason why people tell me that CNS is the ‘dream team’ for North Korea analysis is that we have people with skills across the board here that we brought together,” says Andrea Berger, a London-based CNS analyst who specializes in illicit finance networks. “That has resulted, I think, in some really special research.”
Berger’s estimation is widely shared across the nonproliferation community. “No group has influenced the public discourse on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and progress more than Jeffrey Lewis and his colleagues,” says Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at MIT and prominent nuclear-weapons expert. “They figured out how to put all the pieces together with readily available tools, like nuclear detectives. Knowing the launch location for a test or one that failed used to be the monopoly of intelligences agencies. They single-handedly broke that monopoly.”
Lewis and company, moreover, helped revolutionize their field while possessing only a fraction of the tools available to the world’s spy services and an iota of these organizations’ human capital. The entire North Korea team at CNS consists of fewer than 10 experts. (This number excludes CNS’s graduate students, who provide key research support. I met one typically atypical student, Grace Liu, down in Monterey. When Liu, who is fluent in Chinese and Korean, isn’t engaging in geospatial analysis at CNS, she is a military intelligence officer in the National Guard, overseeing a unit of nearly 300 soldiers.) The CNS teams have no special access or trove of classified data from which to draw. They use entirely open-source methods—commercial satellite imagery, North Korean propaganda videos and photos, social media, business records, and other tools—for their work.
“Look at the shape of the mountains behind the missile,” says Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at CNS, as she points to her computer screen. We’re watching footage from the aforementioned submarine-launched missile test. I am in Hanham’s office in Monterey on a sunny, cool February day. It’s a neat space—most certainly by academic standards—and I find the books and papers that threaten to encroach on this order a comfort in their own right.
There’s a framed North Korean propaganda poster on the wall, covered in sticky notes, with phrases like “Syria Chem” and “Ship Tracking” and “Pyongyang Biotech Institute” on them, reminders that now threaten to obscure this particular Socialist realist paean to the working man.
On another wall is a small, framed poster containing a tiny mounted piece of wire from the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, which buffers the border between the two Koreas. (The DMZ is the product of the 1953 armistice that concluded the Korean War; a formal peace treaty between the two Koreas was never signed, meaning they are still technically at war.) When I first walk into Hanham’s office, there’s Shoegaze or Dream Pop wafting through her computer speakers. It’s a disarmingly pleasant place to tackle one of the world’s most exigent security problems.
The East Asia nonproliferation team broke down this particular SLBM test in stages. First, says Hanham, one of her colleagues, Dave Schmerler, geolocated the mountains in the video from the missile test, using Google Earth to identify from above what the regime gave the rest of the world a glimpse of from below. Now CNS’s researchers had a pretty good idea of where the test took place. Schmerler—who is by his own colleagues’ lights a savant among savants—also happened to remember that he had seen some of the exact same footage (the part where the missile pierces the cloud line), during a 2014 North Korean Scud missile test. Had the North Koreans spliced footage from two separate tests together? Something, they knew, was off.
Another CNS colleague, Catherine Dill, separated the three clips of the missile launch (North Korea showed what appeared to be three separate shots of the same test), which allowed them to be played together, side-by-side. In order to compare these clips, she sped up or slowed down each frame to make sure they were advancing at the same pace, because the North Koreans had tweaked the speed of the videos. Dill discovered that one of the clips was a cropped and flipped version of another—in other words, these were the same shot, from the same camera, edited to appear as different. (North Korea is often “selectively transparent” about its nuclear program, says Joshua Pollack, a Washington-based CNS analyst, and open-source researchers can learn a lot more than might be expected from a country often described, inappropriately in his view, as a “hermit kingdom.”)
One of these three clips had more total frames of video than the two others did. What Hanham noticed was that, in the last few slowed-down seconds of the longest video, the entire missile becomes engulfed in flames. If you look closely enough, you can even see little chunks flying off the missile as it explodes after launch. “The video editor who put together this propaganda just left too many frames in,” says Hanham.
Still, says Hanham, to be sure that the North Korean test deviated from what a successful one would look like, they needed to compare it with the launch of a similar submarine-launched missile. Hanham and her colleagues believed that the North Korean missile was based on an older Soviet model. So they found an old Soviet test video and juxtaposed the two, sizing both videos to scale. In both, the missiles burst from the water, vapor spewing forth. But there was no hint of an explosion in the Soviet test. The North Korean test, they now concluded, was a failure.
This is serious work, and Hanham is a serious and engaged person, given to introspection. But her measured demeanor is complemented by a delightfully dry, cutting, sardonic sense of humor. She is sharp-witted and often quick to laugh.
Jeffrey Lewis, CNS’s East Asia program director, soon walks into Hanham’s office. There’s a certain kind of academic archetype—aggressively unobtrusive, ivory-towerish, almost ecclesiastical—familiar to almost everyone who has spent time on a university campus. This is not Lewis. Brash, bespectacled, and puckish, Lewis commands a casually encyclopedic knowledge of nonproliferation issues. In another life he could have been a contrarian record-store owner, a character from the pages of High Fidelity. He is also, not infrequently, hilarious. I like him immediately.
Lewis has just returned from Germany, where he attended the Munich Security Conference, a gathering of the world’s elite political, military, and academic national security professionals. But Lewis is more excited about a conversation he had in Germany with executives from Airbus, who have agreed to provide Lewis and the team with some new commercial satellite imagery. (The cost of such imagery—which CNS sometimes purchases but more frequently cajoles from private organizations, Lewis says—is exorbitant in its own right; and in any case, the images available to CNS are not quite as advanced as what, say, the National Reconnaissance Service provides the rest of the U.S. intelligence community.)
“Is there any newsworthy stuff in the new satellite data?” I ask.
“Oh, hell yeah,” say Hanham.
“We shit newsworthy,” jokes Lewis.
I tell them I’m putting this exchange in the story; then clarify that I’m jesting.
“I’d be delighted if you did,” says Lewis.
Reader, I included it.
(In all seriousness: Lewis and his team are prolific contributors in the public debate surrounding North Korea’s nuclear program. Their writing is featured frequently in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Foreign Affairs, and they’ve appeared on PBS NewsHour, NBC Nightly News, and Vice News Tonight, among many other programs. “Lewis in particular has managed to make nuclear nerding cool again—actually, maybe for the first time—with his witty and accessible yet super-informative columns, which are the envy of the broader community, I can assure you,” says Narang, the MIT-based nuclear-weapons expert. The CNS crew also features prominently on Twitter, with Lewis, @armscontrolwonk, and Hanham, @mhanham, often responding to nonproliferation-related events with lightning speed.)
Dave Schmerler also walks into the office around this time. Schmerler, a research associate at CNS since 2015, was before then a graduate student at MIIS—both Lewis and Hanham were once his instructors—and he is the most introverted of the group, a relative term, to be sure.
(Lewis and Hanham have worked together since 2011.) His diffidence may be rooted in deference; but Schmerler also gives the impression of a man whose internal wheels are always spinning, of a happy obsessive.
“Dave is a well-known 3-D modeling guru,” says Hanham—Schmerler, looking on, is clearly uncomfortable with self-promotion—“and when he was a student, he took to it like a duck to water. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s funny, he actually flutters his eyes, and you can see him imagining himself standing in a particular place. He enters the matrix or something.”
When I ask Lewis, Hanham, and Schmerler about their intellectual and personal paths—how, in other words, they decided to focus professionally on nonproliferation issues—Lewis needles me a bit. “Such a nice way of saying we’re weirdos,” he deadpans. “How did you become a pervy weirdo, Dave?”
Schmerler doesn’t miss a beat.
“I was born this way,” he says. Everybody laughs.
Well, yes, but raw talent only gets one so far. And Schmerler’s laid-back mien belies his (and Hanham’s and Lewis’s) ardent, and perhaps consuming, devotion to their work. For instance, Schmerler tells me that, when he was a graduate student, he would go home every night after work and school and watch North Korean missile propaganda videos, sometimes for hours. And this regime has given Schmerler some unique skills. “I’ll take pride in my recall,” he says. “I’ve seen a photo or video of every publicly available North Korean missile test. If you show me a picture online and I haven’t seen it, it’s come out 10 seconds ago, or it’s fake.”
“No one is ever going to come out of this group normal,” says Hanham, wryly. We all laugh, again.
Humor is a powerful antidote—a necessary redistribution of psychic energies—to Hanham and her colleagues’ work, which broaches the unthinkable. It also reveals the deeply moral core of their work.
I ask Hanham how she copes with the enormity of the subject to which she has devoted her life. She pauses. “Nuclear war is the most awful thing that humans have ever done and ever will do,” she says. “In the event of a nuclear exchange between the U.S. and North Korea, yes, hundreds of thousands of people will die; and yes, some of them will be American. Yes, economies will crash. It will be the apocalypse that people hide under their desks for. So the whole ballgame is not having it in the first place.”
Lewis nods. It’s a “real problem,” he says, to get people to understand the consequences of nuclear weapons. Even among experts, says Lewis, “there is a kind of tacit agreement among people to pretend that these things are not as terrible as they are.” Perhaps this is a coping mechanism, or some sort of amoral (or frankly immoral) attempt at dissociation. “You can’t participate in policy discussions of nuclear weapons and be honest about what it is that nuclear weapons do to human beings. All of the bullshit we say about them collapses when it confronts the actual consequences of the action. It’s easy to talk about deterrence and compellence. It’s much harder to talk about incinerating people’s children in order to make them do something.”
Nuclear war is the most awful thing that humans have ever done and ever will do," Hanham says. "In the event of a nuclear exchange between the U.S. and North Korea, yes, hundreds of thousands of people will die."
In 2006, Hanham happened to be interning in Seoul for the International Crisis Group (ICG) when North Korea tested its first nuclear device; the experience of actually witnessing a nuclear-weapons test in relative proximity undoubtedly influenced her approach to her work. (North Korea’s recent intercontinental ballistic missile tests showed it to be capable of striking the American mainland; for many years prior, however, North American analysts did not really consider themselves in personal nuclear danger. South Korean and Japanese nonproliferation experts, however, have long worked under other assumptions.)
In the days that followed the test, Hanham pieced together information in order to determine whether the North Korea device was fissile or not—which would tell policy makers and experts just how advanced Pyongyang’s nascent program was. Hanham later returned to ICG as a full-time employee, working with the organization in Beijing during one of the rounds of six-party talks held there to discuss Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.
Her focus on North Korea was, perhaps, “happenstance,” she says, though she knew from early in her career that she wanted to work on areas of conflict in international politics. And—no doubt partly because both her parents are trained PhDs in the hard sciences—she intuited that her work would receive wider purchase if it were rooted in her own quantifiable or measurable research.
“I was really young when the 2003 Iraq War started,” she recalls, “and I remember feeling like I wasn’t smart enough to know, that I didn’t have the privilege of discussing, whether it should happen or not. But I was sure that it didn’t feel right. And one of the things I can contribute to the North Korea debate is research-based data that can help the public make better policy decisions together, in a transparent kind of way.”
At CNS, Hanham began to use Google Earth—there was no budget at the time for commercial satellite imagery—to identify telltale signs of North Korea’s missile program. On her first real try using the program (“I thought it was magic”), she identified a missile on a launchpad near Musudan-ri, a major testing facility. She started using Google Earth in so many different, complex ways that she found herself attending outreach conferences for the program. In a few years, she went from teaching herself how to analyze satellite imagery (Hanham says that almost everyone in this area is self-taught, with the exception of intelligence community analysts) to formally instructing students at MIIS on the subject.
Lewis’s intellectual journey was also somewhat circuitous. He studied philosophy as an undergraduate at Augustana College with a focus on epistemology, the branch of philosophy focused on the nature of knowledge—how we know what we know. Lewis says that, when he concluded he didn’t want to become an academic philosopher, he still hungered for work devoted to one of the Big Questions. And, at the time, nuclear weapons seemed like the Biggest Question of them all.
So, as young, ambitious, aspiring policy wonks are wont to do, he moved to Washington. He became immersed in a world where the subjects of missile defense, nonproliferation, and nuclear weapons were a matter of intense debate, and expertise conferred a kind of social currency. It was an “addictive” experience because, Lewis says, “once you know a little about the topic, you know a magnitude more than almost everyone else in the room, because most people don’t understand the technology at all. And then you are constantly getting invited to better meetings than you would otherwise.”
But philosophy has a way of getting in one’s bloodstream. “The epistemologist in me loves this work,” says Lewis, “because the question is: ‘How do you know what nuclear and missile systems a certain country has? It’s supposed to be secret.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah! That’s what makes it so interesting!’ If you look at a missile and say, ‘Let’s count every exhaust port on that’—that would be really tedious unless you understood very clearly in your head the problem you were going to solve. North Korea wants us to see some things about their program, but not other things. What has propelled me is the fact that this is just a giant epistemological problem; that this is the world’s most interesting applied epistemology problem. North Korea parades a missile on a street: Is it real? That’s a way more interesting question than anything Kant ever said.”
At this, Schmerler cracks up. Hanham flashes Lewis a sidelong glance, and lets out an audible “Ooooooo”; Lewis is, after all, (playfully) rubbishing one of the Enlightenment’s greatest minds. I tell Lewis that I, too, was a philosophy undergraduate student, and that my department was explicitly Kantian. We all laugh again.
There’s something addicting about this approach, Lewis says. I can understand why. It shares many features with investigative journalism: the focus on empirical verifiability; the hunt for covert facts; the sublime, almost ecstatic sense of holding in one’s hands a new, revelatory piece of data that you have been entrusted to share with others. “The best feeling in the world is knowing something no one else does,” says Lewis. “It’s thrilling. Once you see the world that way, you can’t go back.”
Lewis gives a recent example of his team’s detective, or investigative, work. For many years, he says, there was informed speculation that North Korea’s first missile was a Scud—a tactical ballistic missile of Soviet origin—provided to it by Egypt. This was a controversial claim among North Korea nonproliferation experts, but Lewis and his team believed it to be true. But there was never hard proof one way or another.
A few months ago, however, Schmerler was looking at a new cache of historical images North Korea had released documenting its missile program. Schmerler realized that he was viewing a new image, likely never before seen outside of North Korea itself. “We looked at it really closely,” says Lewis, “and it’s Kim Jong-il”—Kim Jong-un’s father, who ruled North Korea from 1994 until his death in 2011—“looking at a brown Scud, with Soviet markings on it that are specific for export models, with the year painted on it that the missile was exported to Egypt.” They had likely identified the first picture of North Korea’s first Scud. “It’s that feeling of knowing that I love,” says Lewis.
This focus on empirical verifiability, of approaching nonproliferation questions from the perspective of applied epistemology, seems to be imprinted into MIIS’s institutional DNA. While visiting Monterey, I also spoke with Bill Potter, CNS’s founding director, in his large, bright office down the hall from Hanham’s. Potter’s office is a monument to the life of the mind. There are stacks (and stacks, and stacks) of paper everywhere: on desks and tables, on piles on the floor, collated and filed and loose and overflowing, decades of study and intellectual engagement laid bare and made tangible. Framed photos of Potter with some of the nonproliferation world’s most prominent experts, like Yukiya Amano, the current director of the IAEA, line his office walls.
Potter, an expert on Russian nonproliferation issues, is kindly and voluble, his enthusiasm for his work, his pride in his colleagues, manifest. When he founded CNS in 1989, Potter says, there was almost no systematic open-source research on nonproliferation issues. At the time, Potter was researching international nuclear commerce. But, he recalls, when he’d query colleagues working at the National Labs (which are responsible for the maintenance of the country’s nuclear arsenal) about related issues, they were unable to answer basic questions on the topic.
Government officials were missing “tremendous” amounts of information out there, says Potter, because it wasn’t top secret. But the information was available—if you knew where to look. Esoteric trade publications were tracking nuclear commerce, and they provided valuable data on the dissemination of related technologies. “I realized there was no correlation between that which was classified and that which was important or accurate,” he recalls, smiling.
Someone needed to assemble, collate, and analyze all this data. So he took his proposal to the State Department. They thought it was a “brilliant” idea, he says, but too costly. Potter decided to undertake the task himself. He bought an expensive (at the time!) piece of $400 computer software and hired three researchers and one computer programmer to work on the project. Together, they created the Emerging Nuclear Suppliers Database.
Within a few years, they were marketing the database to the U.S. government and IAEA. Using this developing trove of open-source trade data, Potter and his colleagues identified technical components of Iraq’s and Libya’s nuclear programs—sometimes before the United Nations or U.S. government did, at least publicly; and outlined many details of the A. Q. Khan proliferation network. (Khan, the godfather of Pakistan’s nuclear program, is considered responsible for heading an illicit network that sold nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea, and Libya.) “The work we are doing today with new tools and technologies”—like those employed by Lewis and his team—“is an extension of what we did at the beginning, when the center was created,” observes Potter.
This research-intensive approach bears many scholarly fruits, but it also fulfills an important public-service function. Today, much of the debate about North Korea takes place behind closed doors, within the confines of official, top-secret Washington. But because Lewis and his team track North Korea’s program so closely, they are not shy about sharing their judgments about Pyongyang’s capabilities. “We’re definitely not naïve about North Korea and what they do in their propaganda, but we try to base our conclusions on what we’re seeing. And there are times when we come up with dramatically different analysis than is featured in some places,” says Lewis.
Some of these quibbles are seemingly mechanical in nature—“aesthetic decisions masquerading as technical ones,” as Hanham puts is—a way for Western nonproliferation journalists, policy wonks, and academics to discount North Korea’s nuclear program by pointing to an element of its missiles’ design that deviates from U.S. or Russian weapons. The CNS team believes this is wishful thinking. The evidence of North Korea’s capabilities is crystal clear, they say.
Indeed, says Lewis, there is a disquieting unreality to the contemporary conversation around North Korea in U.S. policy-making and media circles. For example, many prominent North Korea watchers presume that North Korea can’t do something, and then argue from that presupposition without acknowledging it. “There are a lot of North Korea researchers who believe that it is just not possible for Pyongyang to have a very good missile system,” says Hanham. These researchers then look for a foreign origin for a missile part, instead of investigating whether and how North Korea might have built it themselves.
The debate around North Korea is so skewed, say Lewis, Hanham, and Schmerler, it is almost pathological. Lewis chalks up much of it to racism. “It’s not just that people are racist because it’s enjoyable,” says Lewis. “People get a psychic payoff of a feeling of superiority. And they freak out when that is threatened. This is how white supremacy functions.”
Hanham agrees. “I think for years, and perhaps for decades, we’ve desired to categorize North Korea as backwards or poor,” she says. “And they’ve been steadily working on technology that’s increasingly accessible to all countries and nonstate actors. They’ve been very successful at marshaling their limited resources exactly into those programs. And they’re never going to roll back those programs without an enormous change in the way we interact with them. So we have a new nuclear neighbor.” (North Korea views its missile program as a hedge against a U.S. attack, say Lewis and Hanham—one that guarantees its existence, especially after watching the U.S. depose Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi.)
In fact, says Schmerler, every time North Korea displays its nuclear capabilities, some U.S. analysts “move the goalposts” to question their ability to hit the American mainland. Of this capacity, the CNS team has no doubt. “People think that because North Korea doesn’t know how to build a missile the ‘right’ way, they must not know how to do it at all,” says Hanham, with evident frustration. “Our white supremacist analysts will laugh right into a fiery death—‘Hahahaha, your missile is not as good as mine!’ So what if it just hits Palo Alto instead of San Francisco because they have a ‘terrible, wimpy’ missile?”
If the larger domestic conversation about North Korea’s weapons program is “absurd,” as Lewis says, what, in fact, are U.S. politicians, policy makers, and journalists actually talking about? For all the ink spilled, all the policy papers disseminated, all the talking points regurgitated, what is being debated? And why, given these facts about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, is there spurious debate instead of something approaching a settled (though unsettling) consensus?
They had likely identified the first picture of North Korea's first Scud. "It's that feeling of knowing that I love," says Lewis.
I came to Monterey to write about nonproliferation experts and North Korea. But that’s only one aspect of this tale; and, in the long run, it may not even be the most salient one. Lewis and his team have spent their professional lives studying one of the world’s most repressive and loathsome regimes; but they have also spent years watching the American body politic watch that regime.
“The entire structure of the domestic debate—it’s not as much a story about North Korea, I think, as much as it is a story about ourselves, and how we see ourselves, and how we see our place in the world,” says Lewis. “And the reason we’re so angry about what the North Koreans are doing is not because their nuclear weapons hold at risk New York, but because they hold at risk all the myths we’ve built up about our superiority and dominance over the last 70 years. The kind of existential threat is to our self-image. And that’s the hardest thing for us to take.”
I thought about this for a long time: after our lunch at a cantina in downtown Monterey, where we had a boisterous meal together, our conversation bouncing off the restaurant’s cavernous walls; while we walked back to MIIS’s offices, where the team debated, vociferously and enthusiastically, what a new structure, which the team had identified via satellite imagery, revealed about a potential Chinese military base; and on the tortuous drive back to San Francisco, north through Sand City, where giant dunes shield the nearby towns from the vicissitudes of the Pacific. The dunes are a protective comfort, if ultimately an illusory one. I think I prefer an unobstructed, if sometimes chillier, view. I imagine that Lewis and his team do, too.
Zach Dorfman is a freelance writer who specializes in domestic and international politics, with a focus on U.S. foreign policy.