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What we learned from North Korea's rocket no-show

An unprecedented tour of North Korea's launch facilities taught valuable lessons, based on what was seen as well as what was not seen. Analysis by NBC News' James Oberg.

Looking back on what we were shown — and what was not shown — during our unprecedented press tour of North Korea's space facilities, I realize that both these aspects of reality had lessons for us. The very absence of some expected features of the trip strongly indicated the presence of important features of North Korea.

That sounds bizarre — how can you see something by not seeing something? But it’s why I was along on the trip. My designation, as shown on my identification tag, was "NBC space consultant," and that set me apart. It wasn’t the first time.

When I had made my first commercial inspection trip to Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in the mid-1990s, my client had a strange request. His team was considering renting a Russian rocket to launch one of their communications satellites from that spaceport in Kazakhstan.

"Our engineers will evaluate what the Russians are telling us and showing us," he told me. "Your job will be to find out what they’re not telling or showing us."

That was actually easier than it sounded. Because of the tightly interlaced themes of "rocket science," revelations in one area had implications in other areas. A description of one capability or requirement often implied the existence of specific support technologies that did not need to be identified explicitly. Gaps in descriptions — deliberate or accidental — were usually betrayed by those missing links.

That was a successful inspection trip, and my client chose to go with the Russian launch offer. Based on the assessments of their own team and the gaps that my nosing around filled in, the project worked out fine, and the satellite was later launched without incident.

That approach worked well in North Korea, too, as our NBC team was shown and told a lot about their space satellite plans — and just as obviously, not shown and told a lot.  But disclosure of some things often betrayed attempts to hide other things.

What we did see made headlines, and deservedly so. We were the first foreigners ever to visit any of the North Korean launch bases — for us, the new base at Sohae, in far northwestern North Korea.  We were the first to be shown, up close, a real rocket and what probably turned out to be a real (if unusual) satellite. And we were the first visitors to their satellite control center, northeast of Pyongyang.  

Shows, secrets and make-believe
But before reviewing the on-scene space facilities, I want to describe another escorted "show" put on by our hosts, because it may help explain the space visits more clearly.

This happened on our last day in North Korea, after the anniversary parade. Our team had requested scenes of everyday life, so our escort got us a minivan for just our crew, and off we went.

Parks and monuments were easy enough to locate, but our central request was for an "ordinary store" with "ordinary shoppers." As we drove through Pyongyang, we spotted neighborhoods of interest. But each one was waved off with excuses about parking, or one-way traffic, or other superficially plausible reasons.

Finally, near the copy of France’s Arc de Triomphe, there was an opportunity, and we pulled over. We hustled into a very impressive building with a very impressive general store, and taped the desired scenes.

Hearing that there was an art store on the second floor, we detoured on the way back to the minivan and went shopping. Some of the material was in fact very attractive, and we made a number of purchases, discussing them over a snack at a restaurant on the first floor.

But we had stayed in the shopping center far longer than we had intended — or, as it turned out, than our escort had intended. Heading back upstairs to complete some art purchases, we were startled to cross paths with another group entering the building: other journalists from our hotel, also being shown a "typical" North Korean shopping scene. We laughed about the coincidence, and after completing our purchases laughed again on the way downstairs when a third group of guests from our hotel showed up.

It was no coincidence at all, obviously.

Watching from outside while the minivan was brought up, I saw the pedestrian traffic patterns that explained it. Off down the side street was a military checkpoint, apparently a compound for families of high-ranking officers. The people coming into and out of the shops were coming and going to that compound. Behind me, along the public street, people walked past on their own errands — and I didn’t see any of them stop to enter the shops we had been shown.

In this case, the set-up was obvious, even if revealed only by accident. What we had asked to see — a typical store with typical shoppers in Pyongyang — was never delivered. Instead, we were manipulated into "coming across" a seemingly random store that was actually exactly the one our handler had been aiming for all along, in a longstanding plan to fool us.

We were shown everything except the only thing we had been looking for. And the space tours, perhaps, had been no different.

Face-to-face false promises
It had been at the main satellite control center that a face-to-face confrontation between me and the center’s director turned the spotlight on the first big thing we had not been shown at the launch base two days earlier.

As the only "rocket scientist" in the press group, I was treated with great respect. So I was hustled into the viewing gallery ahead of everyone else and seated next to the center director.

He proceeded to give a speech about the peaceful intent of the launch and how our visit had verified this to the world. Before we could get into an argument over that, he made fun of foreign doubters and said that to prove the satellite we’d seen at the launch base was really going into space, he would have his team rig a seat — with parachute — for a skeptical journalist to ride into space next to the satellite, and return to testify as to what he’d seen.

In the face of several still-skeptical questions from other news teams, he repeated his offer in several variations. He was highly impressed with the humor of his idea. This was going nowhere.

"I’ll go," I interjected into the dispute. "But we don’t need that to prove the claim. All we really need are photographs of the satellite being installed."

No problem, he replied. "We will give you such photographs," was his answer through the interpreter.

That wasn’t good enough for me. Fortunately one of the hundred or so Korean words I’d memorized for the trip popped into my mind. Leaning forward and looking him in the eye, I simply said "Eon-je?" His eyes widened.

The interpreter stammered at the linguistic flow reversal. But he quickly recovered and said, "When?"

He brushed the question aside — "Soon!" — and went on to another subject. I left him my hotel room number, for any photographs.

In the end, of course, the world never did get to see those promised photographs. By now, weeks later, it would be too late. There’s been plenty of time to stage them or otherwise fake them. The window of opportunity for proving the central point of the entire foreign inspection — that the rocket was carrying a small science payload, and only that — had closed soon after the false promise was made.

We never did get proof of what really was under that nose cone atop the rocket. This was the core of the North Korean claim — that the presence of a "peaceful satellite" made the launch "peaceful." Although there were multiple ways they could have easily proved what the actual contents were, and although they repeatedly promised they would do so, in the end they never provided any such proof.

We had been shown everything around the one thing we had expected to be shown — but not that one thing itself. As with the special store, perhaps they expected us to see what we had wanted, even when they switched it out for something entirely different.

The biggest no-show
Friday, April 13, dawned foggy, but the sky soon cleared. It was the second day of the announced four-day-long launch window. We gathered in the press room at the Yang Gak Do hotel, and our escorts described the cultural events we would soon be loading onto buses for. The white screen that had been set up in the front of the room, where we expected to see the launch live, remained unlit.

Then, shortly after 8 a.m., telephone calls and emails began arriving from colleagues outside the country. The rocket had already been launched, we learned. Within minutes we got further word, relayed from South Korea and Japan, that it had failed.

Not watching it in real time was a bummer, to be sure. That had been an explicit promise, to us and to the world. And in terms of insight into the event, it was a major disappointment.

That’s because our news team had privately worked out a plan to try to observe the rocket in the sky during its ascent — from where we were, in Pyongyang. The rocket was going to pass about 60 miles (100 kilometers) west of us, more than halfway up the sky. This was based on my initial back-of-the-envelope estimates, supplemented by detailed calculations emailed to me from experts in the U.S.

While the rocket flame wasn’t expected to be super bright, I thought we’d have a good chance of detecting the ascent visually, and seeing the second-stage separation. I’d seen a few medium-sized rockets of similar type over the years at that range, and had brought my binoculars to help spot this one.

It was a challenge to devise a plan to get outside quickly once launch was seen on the front screen. One door that would be critical was usually kept locked. Other doors in the hotel were just too far away.

We also discussed the issue with our escorts, that we wanted to go outside as soon as launch occurred. That may have been a mistake. But had we caught them by surprise by running for the door at liftoff, their reaction might well have been severe.

The original explicit promise for the observation visit was to watch the launch live. Exactly where wasn’t specified, but real-time witnessing was specifically spelled out.

But for some reason, a high official decided to renege on that promise. Whether our known plans for direct non-censorable observations had anything to do with it or not, we were never given the chance to make those observations, because we weren't told in time that the launch had occurred.

Had we been outside and filming, I have no doubt we would have seen and recorded the explosion that destroyed the rocket. If other news crews had seen us running for the door and followed us, there would have been multiple tapes. Diagnosing the cause of the disaster, and locating the rocket’s debris, would have been made easier.

But it was not to be. A deliberate North Korean strategy of not showing us something that they had originally promised to show us eliminated that possibility.

For the rest of the trip, it was a classic "Rocket? What rocket?" routine. All the officials acted as if there never had been a rocket, and we were here only to celebrate the Kim Il Sung centennial. No explanation — or even an explanation for the lack of an explanation — was ever offered. No official ever mentioned ‘rockets’ to us again.

What does 'not telling' tell us?
The first lesson from these two enormously disappointing cover-ups is that it wasn’t real transparency, but only the illusion of transparency, that most likely had always been the activity’s intent. Cynics warned that this would be the case from the start.

In secondary areas of insight — which exact building does which function at the launch site — we learned a lot. But in the central focus of the show-and-tell — what was actually aboard the rocket — we were told, but we weren’t shown.

The second lesson is more uplifting. We really did learn a lot, including things the North Koreans probably didn’t expect us to notice. The hitherto-top-secret location of the satellite control center is one example. The much-more-massive launch gantry at the new launch pad is another. Other new insights are still being evaluated.

Another insight is that they clearly were totally blindsided by the failure. There was no "Plan B," involving a credible and candid reaction of the kind that the world press had come to expect. This apparently sincere astonishment is completely consistent with the leadership styles I had seen — and remarked on — earlier, an unwavering view that ferocious devotion to the Great Leader would guarantee success for all efforts. That had been an early warning sign of impending disaster that I had passed on to my news team.

In hindsight, not showing the launch live probably didn’t involve damage-limitation calculations at all. It seems they had never installed the communications equipment at the hotel that could have shown the launch live. It had been an empty promise all along.

So it remains true that in rocket science, at least, plans to control outsiders' insight by deliberately partial disclosure usually fail. And even when we know in advance that such a strategy seeks to exploit our presence, it’s worth going anyway, if we prepare adequately to see what is unseen and hear what is untold. I’m ready to pack my bags again for anywhere else where they want to play that game.

Dispatches from the North Korea rocket tour:

NBC News space analyst James Oberg spent 22 years at NASA's Johnson Space Center as a Mission Control operator and an orbital designer. He is the author of several books on space history and space policy, including "Star-Crossed Orbits: Inside the U.S.-Russian Space Alliance."