US Korea Institute

Thursday March 30th 2017
Subscribe to Our RSS feed@38NorthNK on Twitter
38 North offers informed analysis of events in and around the DPRK.

Subscribe for latest



About Yesterday

12 December 2012

“If our intelligence systems and all our other channels of information failed to produce an accurate image of Japanese intentions and capabilities, it was not for want of the relevant materials. Never before have we had so complete an intelligence picture of the enemy.” ~ Roberta Wohlstetter, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision

These words from Professor Wohlstetter’s classic study of the tragedy of Pearl Harbor describe our feelings here at 38 North in the wake of the article published yesterday just before the North Korean rocket launch. You may have noticed that our piece predicted that, given Pyongyang’s announcement that it had a problem with its rocket, it would take at least until December 21 to fix the problem. Obviously that prediction turned out to be wrong.

The fact is we did have enough information to hypothesize that the North could actually launch its rocket very quickly. Contrary to South Korean press reports, including one yesterday morning in Yonhap news that said the rocket had already been removed from the pad, our analysis showed, in fact, that it had not been removed. Looking at the entire Sohae facility, including the instrumentation and observation sites and even the VIP hotel, we concluded that all necessary preparations had been made for a launch. We even spotted new instrumentation near the pad that seemed intended to observe the first stage of the rocket that had helped cause the failure of last April’s launch. In short, leaving aside Pyongyang’s announcement that it had technical problems and that the launch window had been extended, we could have easily concluded that the rocket could be launched at any moment.

But unfortunately, we fell into a trap cited by Professor Wohlstetter, “the very human tendency to pay attention to signals that support current expectations about enemy behavior.” We looked at all this information through the prism of the North’s announcement that it was having technical problems and then thought about how those problems might affect a launch. Our mistake was to conclude that fixing the difficulty with the first stage would require its return to the missile assembly plant. Since it was clear from the photos that hadn’t happened yet, we assumed it would still have to happen and then projected how long those repairs might take.

We will, of course, never know what really happened. Some people would argue that the North’s announcement of a delay was part of some disinformation campaign. We have no idea why they would want to wage such an effort. Another possibility is that they discovered that the repair could, in fact, be done at the pad without moving the first stage back to the assembly building. Either way, the North was able to fire the rocket off quickly, fooling not only us, but evidently also various intelligence agencies with access to reams of secret information, certainly much more than our two satellite images.

So the lesson for us as we move forward with more satellite imagery analysis over the coming weeks and months is to explore alternatives, to ponder whether what we are looking at can fit other explanations and, most of all, to be even more careful about our assumptions.

Reader Feedback

8 Responses to “About Yesterday”

  1. Isao says:

    I agree with this article.
    Adding one or two things, the counterpart is NK,and they will behave or act,realizing that they are monitored by artificial satellites.

  2. […] “About Yesterday,” 38North, December 12, 2012. Share this:ShareTwitterLinkedInEmailLike this:LikeBe the first to […]

  3. nico says:

    I agree with James Wentworth, seems to me that after the last launch that had a lot of publicity, the Nkoreans wanted to create more surprise and news, what best way than catching West with our pants down, also by launching earlier, they caught secret services and intel resources out of position.

    One thing that I have always thought odd about this launch site, where are all the protective measures around the site like SAMs and AA positions???? Most NKorean sites have some defenses like that, this launch site appears to have none….

  4. JackO says:

    Is there anyone who doesn’t see that this was a ploy to throw us off? The international press stood down, anti-missile assets were not quite ready. The N. Koreans weighed the factors and decided that this was the best time and it was worth the risk to the missile. Besides, when the Great Leader says push the button, you push the button.

  5. Don Rich says:

    If there were a regime harder to figure out, per surprises, that is the DPRK. Ditto on thoughts of Mr. Wentworth as to why, which has some more general applicatons some might wonder as to why the DPRK operates a certain way that we may well miss, because we can’t put ourselves enough in their shoes.

  6. jim oberg says:

    The announced delay also took pressure off some news media preparations to try to visually observe the rocket from south Korea. And launching without notice, despite specific prmises of ‘transparency’, would have frustrated those efforts even if the resources and personnel had been in place.

  7. JimBoMo says:

    Well said.

    Very much looking forward to your post-launch analysis. I’d be very interested in your opinion why NK went ahead with an unusual winter launch that increased the risk of failure. Why launch now? Reckless or self-assured?

  8. James Jason Wentworth says:

    Dear Sirs,

    Could it be that the early, surprise launch was conducted to reduce the probability that the anti-ballistic missile assets in the area would be on alert and ready to respond instantly? Also, have any further clues emerged regarding the satellite itself and its purpose(s)? Many thanks in advance to anyone who can shed some light on this.

    Sincerely Yours,

    James Jason Wentworth

Leave a Reply

Credit for photo of young North Korean girl: T.M. All rights reserved, used with permission.