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Publicly available information has long been used in intelligence tradecraft, but the growing capabilities of open-source information in civil society means it has a new and positive role to play in diplomacy and arms control with North Korea. Open-source intelligence (OSINT) can be defined as information that is not derived from classified sources. It can be found in the public domain in speeches or government documents, for example. Commercially available data like satellite images, photos, video, news articles, and trade data are also increasingly available at a price point that universities and NGOs can afford. New sensors and data sources are creating ever-growing possibilities for verification, and the human capacity of government officials and other actors alike to handle this data is also growing. Civil society now regularly provides arms control and proliferation analysis on North Korea, a trend that was only emerging a decade ago.

OSINT has numerous benefits if used properly. By its nature, OSINT is not classified and therefore can be shared not only with allies and international organizations but also with adversaries to enable dialogue on arms control and disarmament issues. It is not a replacement for traditional intelligence methods or onsite inspectors; rather, it can act as a complementary source of information to boost transparency with the public, build trust with adversaries, and improve inter- and intra-governmental coordination and efficiency on verification. After decades of negotiations with North Korea with little or no success, OSINT can provide a fresh way of communication that builds trust toward an eventual agreement, while also offering additional support to traditional verification methods if and when an agreement is reached.

The Benefits of Open-Source Intelligence

OSINT is publicly verifiable and can be proven or disproven without revealing government intelligence sources or methods. OSINT experts and practitioners in civil society actively debate findings and each other’s methods—often on social media—in a transparent way that can build confidence in such assessments. Furthermore, because many of these discussions are happening on social media, global participation and diverse types of expertise (technical, linguistic, and local knowledge, for example) can be applied. Because this manner of debate and problem solving happens in real time, this work occurs rapidly, sometimes more rapidly than traditional intelligence can be collected, analyzed, and vetted for consumption by policymakers or ultimately for release to the public.

Melissa Hanham
Melissa Hanham is an expert on open-source intelligence, incorporating satellite and aerial imagery, and other remote sensing data, large data sets, social media, 3D modeling, and GIS mapping. She is particularly focused on the monitoring and verification of international arms control agreements using open-source evidence.

OSINT has two major contributions for potential future agreements with North Korea. First, it can help build trust ahead of the conclusion of an agreement. For example, the United States can provide OSINT evidence of its own activities around the Korean Peninsula to build confidence toward a stage where official security guarantees could be negotiated. The relationship between the United States and North Korea is so fraught that trust-building activities should be seized upon as soon as possible. Even without direct participation by North Korea, civil society in the United States and the other former participants in the Six Party Talks—China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea—can begin providing open-source assessments for crisis scenarios. The greatest risk of nuclear escalation on the Korean Peninsula is due to an accident or miscalculation stemming from scenarios ranging from a natural disaster to a limited military exchange leading to a rapid escalation. By regularly and publicly analyzing not only their own but also North Korea’s perceived threats in a transparent format, members of civil society from these countries can begin to test potential mechanisms for an eventual agreement.

Tabletop exercises in a track 2 or track 1.5 format that focus on crisis scenarios or mock negotiations could be simulated with the participation of local universities and think tanks in the region with real OSINT analysis. These exercises could even produce a public readout. Though not official, they would provide North Korea with ideas about how its neighbors would react in various situations and perhaps illuminate to the regional parties which negotiation tactics and terms are most relevant. North Korea may not choose to join tabletop exercises or mock negotiations on such sensitive topics. Creating tabletop exercises on other, non-nuclear topics, like vaccine distribution and flood mitigation, would provide a lower-stakes opening for collaboration. Ties between North Korea and NGOs in some European countries already exist. As trust is built, exercises could gradually take on crisis scenarios related to natural disasters and nuclear safety, for example. In time, civil society may be in a position to gauge the desirability and political commitment to security guarantees that can benefit all parties in the region.

Second, OSINT can make a real contribution to the verification and monitoring of an eventual negotiated agreement. To do so, OSINT data and methods should be baked into the agreement from the start to augment rather than undermine other forms of closed-source verification. The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran has already shown that investigative journalists and think tank researchers will use OSINT regardless of whether or not such methods are in the agreement in question. It is therefore best to provide channels where OSINT analysis can be used constructively (such as in compliance commission discussions) rather than used by spoilers to second-guess those tasked with verification. A final agreement may, for instance, include provisions allowing for North Korea to verify security guarantees provided by the United States, such as changes in equipment or personnel deployments. OSINT can be a useful way of facilitating information exchanges on troop levels and readiness exercises or even a way of reconfirming the 1991 withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula.

Additionally, OSINT can help negotiators to balance the aspects of negotiations that are most important for preventing proliferation with those that are most readily measurable with current verification technology. Inspectors on the ground have much higher fidelity with instrumentation, while OSINT can be extremely effective for multisensor monitoring of above-ground nuclear and missile facilities using commercial space-based sensors, for example. Commercial sensors today outnumber military sensors and provide greater frequency of coverage with the availability of high-cadence imagery on a daily or even more frequent basis. U.S. reconnaissance sensors still outpace the spatial resolution (which can be thought of as “sharpness” of an image) of commercial satellite imagery. Even though U.S. commercial satellite companies are not permitted to show objects smaller than approximately 30 centimeters by 30 centimeters under U.S. export control regulations, high resolution commercial satellite imagery is still capable of monitoring objects like buildings and vehicles, making it sufficient for verification of nuclear and missile facilities without revealing U.S. military satellite capabilities. Despite export controls and sanctions, the data should be vetted, licensed, and made available to all parties to the agreement (including North Korea) to reduce information asymmetries and build trust.

Lastly, OSINT can complement the verification process after an agreement is concluded. Technological advances and the sheer number of sources for data are exploding in the commercial sector. Governments should adopt OSINT into their own analysis for this reason alone. Further, verification questions and challenges can be addressed transparently with OSINT information that can be shared and verified without revealing sources and methods. Finally, OSINT can improve the efficiency and robustness of onsite inspectors’ work.

OSINT Sensors and Novel Approaches

A variety of OSINT technologies and methodologies are increasingly available to civil society. Electro-optical sensors capture visible light in shades of red, green, and blue seen by the naked eye as well as light outside of the visible spectrum, which can be false-colored (which means colored with light humans can see) for analysis. Near-infrared light has proven useful for monitoring traditional camouflage, identifying burn scars from missile tests, and tracking unusual logging activities at North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site, for instance. Thermal infrared sensors on the United States Geological Survey’s Landsat satellites, though weak compared to military sensors, can additionally monitor heat signatures through their publicly available imagery. With cooperation from North Korea, onsite inspectors could take measurements of roof temperatures of buildings involved in the fuel cycle like the 5 megawatt electric reactor at Yongbyon—and then could continually monitor the facility from space to see if these buildings are operating within acceptable limits or not.

Hyperspectral sensors, though still emerging in the commercial sector, can capture many slices of the electromagnetic spectrum, allowing them to identify the chemical signatures of materials on the ground. One such sensor called the DLR Earth Sensing Imaging Spectrometer is located on the International Space Station. Just as parties to the Open Skies Treaty inspected aerial sensors and jointly conducted verification activities on aircraft, someday parties may seek to inspect or install their own sensors on the International Space Station.

Synthetic aperture radar—which does not rely on sunlight like electro-optical imagery does—works at night, through cloud cover, and even through some light roofing materials, as Allison Puccioni pointed out in an article that showed North Korea stacking an Unha rocket through the roof of its launch tower at Sohae.1 Synthetic aperture radar images can also be mixed temporally to show how the surface of the earth over North Korea’s nuclear test site sunk after the most recent Punggye-ri nuclear test—and it can even be used to monitor container or vehicle movement.

One criticism of commercial satellite imagery has been that the data could be tampered with for political gain. There is no evidence to suggest that North Korea has ever done this, but states such as Russia have questioned the reliability of imagery provided by states in IAEA safeguards settings. However, states that do not trust the sensors of a particular country can choose to receive data from any or all other commercial providers in other involved countries such as China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States (or beyond) to compare findings. While data from one sensor could be compromised theoretically, it is unlikely data from all sensors could be. States that are concerned about data being tampered with before it is distributed could require satellite companies to use advanced techniques in digital watermarking and reject images without it. Furthermore, photos and videos from North Korean state media are already regularly used to indicate fuel cycle activity and capabilities, which corroborates data coming from space. Additionally, scientific publications are scoured and networked with natural language processing techniques to reveal emerging technologies. This broad spectrum of sources and techniques makes it very difficult to spoof or discredit these OSINT techniques.

Focusing specifically on the nuclear fuel cycle, there are some facilities that are easier to monitor with OSINT techniques than others. Monitoring mining, milling, testing, and reactor activities are among the easier tasks, while enrichment, reprocessing, and warhead storage can be difficult because these latter activities have few signatures observable from afar other than traffic activity. OSINT tasking should therefore focus on leveraging its strengths and on supporting the work of onsite inspectors to help them act as effectively and efficiently as possible within the bounds of a future agreement with North Korea.

Missiles and submarines are still easier to monitor with OSINT techniques. Activities like the production of solid or liquid fuel, engine testing, launch setup, and missile storage and testing take place above ground and require specialized facilities with unique structures and heavy-duty roads with wide turning radii that make them relatively easy to spot. The movement of a site’s gantry tower—or the portion of the launchpad that supports the missile—is already monitored closely, as is the presence of ships in ports. However, North Korea has already developed an advanced shell game of continually moving its road mobile missiles through caves, warehouses, and highway underpasses. Transporter erector launchers are a chokepoint for missiles, as the number of missiles a country can launch is limited to the number of launchers it has before retaliation from an adversary destroys the vehicles. Thus, monitoring facilities for manufacturing heavy-duty vehicles and tanks has become a cottage industry among OSINT enthusiasts who seek to gauge how many launchers North Korea could produce. The Sinpo South Naval Yard, where North Korea refurbishes and maintains its submarines, has many easy-to-monitor sites that indicate the testing, production, and deployment of assets including the site’s missile ejection test stand, large warehouses, dry docks, ports, submersible test barge, and the submarines themselves.


OSINT analysis of any future deal with North Korea will happen regardless of whether it is desired by the framers of an agreement or not. Therefore, it is best to get ahead of the curve and embrace the many benefits that these techniques and tools offer by earmarking funds, providing resources for ethical tradecraft, cultivating human capital globally, and investing in access to data and tools for a diverse cross section of civil society. Some simple steps can be to provide training to OSINT analysts and journalists not just in the United States but also throughout Northeast Asia. Governments can also ease the financial and legal burdens of collecting and preserving North Korean media and licensing data for export. Building up an ethical, strong, and capable OSINT community has benefits to reaching, negotiating, and verifying future arms control agreements with North Korea.


1 Allison Puccioni, “Penetrating Vision: Radar Imagery Analysis Fills Intelligence Gaps,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, May 2016.