January 17, 2000

Commercial Images Detail
North Korean Missile Site


U.S. national security officials got their first real taste of the new era of high-resolution commercial imagery last week when Space Imaging Inc. released detailed satellite pictures of a secretive North Korean missile complex.

The 1-meter resolution panchromatic images taken by Space Imaging's new Ikonos satellite provide the most detailed view of the missile complex ever shown to the public. The site, adjacent to the Sea of Japan, was most recently used by North Korea to launch an exoatmospheric Taepo Dong 1 missile over Japan in August 1998. North Korea also is developing a follow-on missile, the Taepo Dong 2, that would be capable of striking Alaska.

A missile assembly building, launch pad and gantry, and range control facility are seen in this photo and insets. But the complex is primitive by U.S. standards, with dirt roads and no visible housing or propellant storage facilities. Analysts from the Federation of American Scientists, an organization that believes the North Korean missile threat has been overhyped, said the Ikonos images showed the complex could not support the kind of extensive test program needed to fully develop a reusable missile system.

But former CIA chief R. James Woolsey took issue with that argument. "The relative primitiveness of the site is not the main point," he said. "In order to have a blackmail weapon, the North Koreans really just need a missile that can hit a large area in Japan and [later] the United States." Woolsey added that North Korea has a long history of hiding buildings and equipment underground. "You can't test a missile underground, but you can certainly hide a great deal of what might be useful," he said.

Commercial imagery advocates say the real story is the impact Ikonos will create by exposing sensitive sites and military activities for the world to see, though classified U.S. imagery satellites still have much sharper resolutions. For the U.S. government, the headache is just beginning. Space Imaging already has received commercial requests to image Area 51, the super-secret U.S. military R&D air base in Nevada.

© January 17, 2000 The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.