Using OSINT to understand the closed environment of North Korea
Speaker 1: Welcome to the World of Intelligence, a podcast for you to discover the latest analysis of global military and security trends within the open source defense intelligence community. Now, onto the episode with your host, Harry Kemsley.
Harry Kemsley: Hello and welcome to this edition of Jane's World of Intelligence. As usual, your host, Harry Kemsley, and my co- host Sean Corbett. Hello, Sean.
Sean Corbett: Hi, Harry.
Harry Kemsley: Hi. So, in recent podcasts, Sean, we've had a range of different topics, a range of different things to talk about. And one of the things that's come up previously and I'd like to revisit today is, how does the open source environment help and work in more closed environments? And, there's little more closed in the world than the North Korean environment. And, I'm delighted this morning to introduce the listener to Cristina Varriale. Hello, Cristina?
Cristina Varriale: Hi, Harry.
Harry Kemsley: Cristina Varriale is Senior Analyst on the Northeast Asia Country Intelligence team. Before joining Janes in April 2022, Cristina spent six years in the Proliferation and the Nuclear Policy Team at the RUSI think tank, culminating in a short period as acting director. Prior to RUSI, she worked with the International Center for Security Analysis at the Policy Institute, Kings College, London. Her work primarily focuses on researching and analyzing North Korea's domestic security and stability, the country's WMD programs, foreign relationships and the implications for securities. So, Cristina, clearly with that background, there's a lot we could speak about with regard to North Korea. As I said, in my introduction, what I'm really keen to look at is how does the open source environment work in such a closed environment as the North Koreans? Perhaps you get us started for the listener, just to give us a quick resume of what's going on in North Korea right now that's of interest, and that you've learned from open sources.
Cristina Varriale: So, North Korea at the moment is in a really, really interesting situation. And, I'm not just saying that as somebody that follows it closely. I think there's a lot going on in the country that is likely to have impacts on the region and potentially globally as well in the coming years and months. At the start of 2020, North Korea took the decision to fully close all of its land, sea and air borders in response to the COVID- 19 pandemic, which stopped pretty much all trade for a significant period of time. We have seen maritime trade return, but in terms of land borders and air borderers, they're almost still completely closed. There's been one exception of the border reopening to allow the new Chinese ambassador to Pyongyang, to enter the country. But, aside from that, there's been no movement of people coming in or out, which has quite a significant impact on the country. So, we're not just talking about diplomats, North Korean diplomats that aren't able to return. We're talking about significant food stuff imports, fertilizer imports, even illicit trade has been impacted by these closures. So, we don't think of North Korea as a country that has vast economic relations around the world, but it does rely on its illicit networks to access revenue generation and important resources to keep the country alive, quite simplistically. And, the impact that the border closure has had is all of that has stopped, and that's going to have some really negative consequences for the country. Like I said, food security situation is probably quite precarious right now. But, the impact that that's had on our ability to assess the country and open sources has also been quite stark. The border closure not only impacted trade, but has resorted in on- the- ground reporting also coming to an end. So, embassies in North Korea had to close. So, the UK Embassy, for example, the Swedish Embassy, and they're no longer operating and open. UN aid workers that were on the ground in North Korea, who also had to withdraw, they've not been in the country since about I think March or May 2021. So, that means we're not getting those more accurate insights as to what's happening on the ground. And, the reports that we've got from organizations like the UN have now diminishing value, because they've not been produced in the last few years. And I think the direction we see North Korea going in, in some of its narratives and its control over retaining some of the measures that were put in place following COVID suggests that actually we're maybe not going to get access to those types of reports and information again anytime soon. So, when we're thinking about the current ability, our current ability to look at what's going on domestically in North Korea, there is definitely a current challenge in what resources and information we have available. That said, it's definitely not all doom and gloom. We do have resources and information that we can access that help our understanding and assessments of that picture. North Korean-
Harry Kemsley: Maybe we can come to... Sorry, Cristina. Maybe we can come to the how you do what you do in this stark environment in just a second. But, Sean, I just want to underscore the importance of this conversation. Given your background, it's very clear that North Korea has been and remains a country of great importance to global politics, global security situations. Of course, many eyes have been focused on other parts of the world, not least Ukraine, arguably China and so on, and the power struggle going on with the US. Maybe North Korea to some extent. To some extent it's fallen off some people's radars. From your background, Sean, just give us your own assessment of how important it is that we do get insight into what's happening into Korea, sorry, given just how important that is.
Sean Corbett: Yeah. So, as you know Harry, it's one of the, what we call the primary four plus- one priorities for definitely the Five Eyes, particularly the US actually. So, as I said, the four plus one is China, Russia, DPRK, Iran, and then the counter- terrorist challenge. But, as you will all know, the focus on China right now is huge in the US and the focus on Russia as well for obvious reasons. So, DPRK? I mean, I've been looking at DPRK since 1989 in the intelligence community. And, it has always been a real challenge. Now the problem is that it's about the intent. So, threat equals capability, plus intent. Understanding what it is they're really trying to do is really important. And, we're not necessarily there yet, because it's such a closed and difficult intelligence target. Is it all about survival of regime? And, probably the answer is" yes." But, it's" Yes, but... " You don't develop intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear capability, just to protect your regime. Or, do you? But, for me, it's survival of the regime, and all of the above as well. So, yes. It's really important and it's probably not getting the attention that necessarily it would deserve always, because of the distractions of what else is happening in the world.
Harry Kemsley: If open source were to be a service to the IC, the intelligence community, from what Randy Nixon was saying to us recently in that podcast we had with him, it would be in a complementary way, where we would provide insight perhaps on the flanks, where agencies were less able to spend resource, because they were so focused on a really high priority issue or indeed it would be in terms of indicators and warnings. And, just to pick up on that point you made there, Sean, about intent... I don't want to go straight to intent, Cristina, because that's a big topic in itself, but I want to go back to the question I was asking earlier. But, we're going to get to intent eventually, because that's ultimately the indicator that what we might need to understand where this is all going. Why are they testing so many missiles and so on? But, let's go back to the question in mind from before. Given that it was already closed, but it's become more and more difficult. Your word was" stark." It's a stark challenge that we have now. How do we do it? To know that you are producing monthly reports on what's happening in Korea, which are being used by a range of different customers in a range of different ways, how are you doing that? How are you getting those insights that you need from the open source environment?
Cristina Varriale: So, my first port of call when trying to understand and assess what's going on in North Korea is always state media. There is a variety of state media outlets that we can look at, all with slightly different intentions, some more geared towards international audiences, policy makers in different capitals. Some related to the domestic audience in North Korea, others related to trying to influence and persuade. Maybe not at the government level, but at the sub- government level around the world, influence and persuade people to be sympathetic to North Korea's aims to support the regime. So, looking across the spectrum of the content North Korea puts out there is incredibly valuable. There is a lot of that available online that we can access. It absolutely has its limitations. We have to understand that the content North Korea puts online that we can access is there because they've chosen to put it there. So that is a fundamental limitation. But, it's also very, very highly controlled and crafted. So, that actually gives us a really good insight into what message they want us to be reading. That doesn't mean we should take that message at face value, but that means that we can understand that that message is being put out there for a reason. And, it can give us a starting point to understand why they might want us to be consuming that narrative. And, once you start to do this over a period of time, and I think this is incredibly important when looking at North Korean state media... It must be done over a period of time to look at the trend. You can then monitor and see changes in narratives. Is the language being used the same? Is the person attributed to a particular statement the same? Is it a person that is higher ranked within the leadership and the party? Is it a person that's potentially lower ranked? Is it a statement that's come from a party official or a government official? And all of these things give as little clues as to what North Korea intends us to take away from those messages. So that is really, really important. That said, what North Korea says and does, does not happen in a vacuum. And, what North Korea says and does can sometimes also be two very different things. So, looking at other sources and the broader context is also imperative to understanding state media. What's happening domestically? So, for example, narratives that we've seen over the last three years, now three- and- a- half years should always be understood in the context of North Korea has its borders closed, what does that mean for the country? You can't separate those contexts. Same for the region. What's going on in the region? What's the relationship between China and the US, for example? And, how is that implicating the US presence in the region, either directly or indirectly to the North Korean threat? And how is North Korea reacting to that? What narrative is that helping to underpin for the North Korean regime? And again, then, what North Korea puts out influences that context and influences those circumstances. They should always be considered in a package. We should never be considering these things separately. The other thing that I will also look at is specialist news sites. So, for example, Daily NK, Radio Free Asia, they have access to sources within North Korea. They can be incredibly insightful, but they can also pose challenges in that they are often anecdotal. So, the comments and the quotes that sometimes those sources have access to are reflective of an individual situation or a local situation. They might not necessarily give access to the picture of the situation across the entire country, and they don't always give access to good insights of those leadership structures. The insight they can give is what's happening in those towns and those villages and how those people are perceiving their situation. And, that's really important and valuable, but again, it must be understood in that context. And then, the final thing I wanted to add to that information piece of the types of narrative sources that we look at would be defector reporting. Again, I think there is tremendous value in looking at defector reports. Defector reports are incredibly valuable. They do give us insight that we might not otherwise be able to access. But again, defectors have left the country for a reason, so we have to also understand their position within that context. Defectors have also declined in number quite dramatically over the last 10- ish years. Data, I think, from the Ministry of Unification in South Korea for 2022 had only 67 defectors entering the country, entering South Korea. And obviously we can put that in the context of COVID and those sorts of things, not just in North Korea, but also in the countries that North Koreans leaving the country would be experiencing, so China, for example. But, if we look at the trend prior to COVID, the decline was also well on its way. The trend of people leaving North Korea, that number was declining prior to COVID. So, I think in 2019, South Korea reported just over 1, 000 North Koreans entering the country, which was down from about 2, 700 in 2011. So, quite a dramatic change. And defectors, we have to understand that that information is very valuable. It will likely continue to decline, especially as we see North Korea, I would say very likely continue to retain some of their COVID-19 restrictions on the movement of people, the movement of trade coming in and out of the country, because of the benefit that's had for enhancing their social control within the country. I would imagine that the number of defectors will likely stay quite low in the coming years.
Harry Kemsley: So, quite a few different sources, despite the fact that the sources you previously had have somewhat gone away, because of the COVID and the restrictions on that. Sean, it sounds to me though, like the situation in North Korea is still somewhat impenetrable for us, particularly where we're getting less and less defectors. It still feels a little bit like that's quite hard for us to see beyond inferences from state media, from third- party news media around it and so on. It still feels somewhat impenetrable.
Sean Corbett: Yeah. Definitely. There's quite a lot to unpack there from what Cristina was saying. But, you're right. And, that's why we call it intelligence not information, because it is piecing together those, you've heard me say this before, pieces of jigsaw. You don't know if it's the same jigsaw, it may not have any pictures on it, but you've still got to put it together as much as you can. But, there was two pieces that really struck out for me in Cristina's bit. The first was the narrative, in terms of understanding who the narrative is aimed at. Is it an internal one to keep the population compliant? Or, is it external to message against us? But, I think if you flip that as well, is looking at what their reaction is to external stimuli, for example, joint South Korea and Japanese and US exercises, and you're going to see a reaction. And, what that reaction is will tell you quite a lot about whether it feels threatened, about whether it's feeling belligerent, or what sort of state that the mind is in. But going back to the sources, this is a classic case with DPRK, that you need every single source you possibly can to try and understand it as much as you can. And that includes in the open- source domain. So, for example, we've always used imagery quite heavily with North Korea, because you can actually see stuff. Now, that's not to say... I mean, they're incredibly surveillance aware and they know when satellites are passing, et cetera, et cetera. But, there's only so much you can do. So, for example, for reasons I won't go into, I was quietly looking at the border, the northern border crossing between and excuse my pronunciation, but Sinuiju and Dandong, which is a really major road crossing point between North Korea and China. Now, in recent years, as Cristina said, the huge amounts of trucks that used to go to and fro just have stopped, because of COVID and other things. Now, that indicates very much, now obviously North Korea is very heavily dependent on Chinese trade. If that's not happening, how are they managing to sustain themselves? So, imagery is one side, but the whole messaging and the narrative I think is another piece that is really important to get into. And, as Cristina said, we can't ignore the defector reports. Now, there's a real" got you," and you know that I have healthy skepticism with some of the inaudible, because human is just about what an individual either thinks or wants to message. Now, by definition, as Cristina said, people that come across clearly want to because they want to get away from it, so they're going to have a negative perspective. That's not to say they're wrong, but they all... And, I love the way Cristina put it, it's about the individual and how they think and what they think.
Harry Kemsley: Yeah. Let me just pick up on that point there, Cristina, with you, because you mentioned it and Sean's just underscored it for me. You talked about, let's use the state media as the focus for this question. In the state media, we're reading and listening to what they're saying, and through that, you're telling me that you can detect, because of who's saying it or exactly how they're saying it, the words they're using, the lexicon, what the message is for the audience that you believe it's intended for. That doesn't strike me as a trivial thing to be able to do. That feels like one of those things that takes a long time to really get underneath. That's not something you could pick up tomorrow and start to think about. It's one of those things that strikes me as being a long- term endeavor. Is that a fair assumption?
Cristina Varriale: Yeah. Absolutely. I think, as I mentioned before, it's understanding and developing a picture of the trend as well. I think it would be incredibly difficult to, for the first time open North Korean state media, read an article and make an assessment on what their thinking is, what their intent is, based on reading just one article. The trend and monitoring the narratives and the language is so important for understanding those shifts, or potentially lack of shifts. It's not always just about the specific content of individual articles, but as a collective, the particular topics that state media also wants to be talking about. So, for example, in 2016, there was a good number of articles related to North Korea and China's engagement. So, talking about sports teams visiting and exchanging, musical troops, visiting each country and having exchanges. Then, all that disappeared around the time when China supported additional UN Security Council's following North Korea's nuclear missile tests. We obviously cannot reach hard conclusions, but you can take that change and you can say, " Okay. Well, what's the circumstance in which this change has occurred?" We can look to the international context and say, well, this is potentially one factor, and then you can look for other pieces of evidence that might suggest that the relationship between North Korean and China has changed. So, it's about the trends in the actual written words, but also the trends in the topics as well. We can see that with, for example, at the moment a lot of the content in state media is referring to managing agriculture in the country and developing agriculture, responding to extreme weather events, preparing the country for extreme weather events. That's not necessarily unusual for this time of year, but it demonstrates that actually there's an awareness that this is an issue for the country, and that they want to be talking about it and publishing it in state media. And, that has maybe out- balanced in the last month or so, content related to military tensions with the US or South Korea. But, again, it's about identifying those patterns and those trends, so we can really understand any minor changes. Identify them early, so we're then monitoring them and tracking them and understanding whether or not they're an anomaly or they're about to become a new pattern as well.
Harry Kemsley: Yeah. I think that's really the point for me. Really well- described by Cristina, Sean, in the fact that I don't doubt that there are agencies all around the world in the western world looking very intently what's going on and making their own assessments. But, I know this is not a one- person sport. There is lots and lots of interpretations that could be going on, and that blend of what Cristina is describing with her team and how they're interpreting the nuances that might be available to us. And, I particularly like that connection you've made there, Cristina, between outside events and then reading the reactions and trying to see those connections. Again, Sean, that's not something that happens quickly. That's something you can only begin to understand over a long period of time. And, I think there is a complementarity, is there not Sean, between what Cristina is doing from open sources and what others might be doing from more exquisite sources?
Sean Corbett: Yeah. Absolutely. And, of course, there are two other elements to this. One of them is the regional perspective. So, much as we try to get inside the cultures of other countries and regions, we're not that close. So, getting the South Korean perspective, getting the Japanese perspective, and even to an extent the Chinese perspective as well. Because obviously they feel quite close to DPRK in some ways, but they feel obligated to support them. But, they're not necessarily their best friends, because if the worst ever happened and there was a conflict between North and South Korea, the first thing would happen there would be probably millions of refugees heading north into China. They don't want that either. So, looking at their state media and what they're saying about North Korea I think is important as well. And, just while I'm on the regional perspective, one of the really powerful pieces for open- source intelligence with this particular target, North Korea, is the way it facilitates intelligent sharing, because each of the nations involved... Without going into detail, I have been involved in negotiations between some of the countries that are very interested. They don't necessarily have any, or they don't or didn't have, strong intelligence sharing treaties and arrangements with each other at this very highly classified level as a collective. But, if you can use open- source intelligence to say, " Right... " And then, give everybody a consistent and coherent view on what's happening, that is as close to what they think an exquisite sources as possible, that really is powerful in facilitating a strong discussion. And, I know, because I've been involved in those discussions.
Harry Kemsley: Yeah. We've seen that, haven't we Sean, in other conversations. Look at what's happened around Ukraine, where non- traditional allies are in desperate need of intelligence support from some of the more capable intelligence countries around the world, and indeed are getting it, but often by use of open source content such as that which Jane's produces and reports. It's that it is shareable. It is usable, in a sense that is much, much easier to do than we're finding from classified sources. So, Cristina, because time is always going to evaporate on us, I'm going to pivot us round to a point we made earlier in terms of intent. Sean described intent as being alongside capability, as a way of deciding how much threat there really is from activities we're seeing. So, help us understand how intent of a regime, such as that we see in North Korea, can be understood by open sources. You've talked a little bit about state media and how we might interpret that. But, how else could we look at that specific question of, what is in the mind? What are they really trying to do in North Korea from open sources?
Cristina Varriale: So, I think that's an excellent question. My starting point would always be those state media outlets and content. But then, I think, comparing and contrasting that with something that Sean mentioned earlier, actually, in satellite imagery. Does the action match the words? Taking an example of the nuclear program, for example, the North Koreans might state that they are looking to, or... In 2017, 2018, they could state in a press conference with Trump that they were looking to commit to suspending some activity with their nuclear program, which can then lead to some people interpreting that as being a cessation of all activities across the nuclear program. But then, you can look at satellite imagery and see some of the nuclear facilities still in operation. So, that suggests that the intent of actually rolling back, or limiting their nuclear capability, was maybe not as it was portrayed in the narrative. So, I think that's really important. I think on intent, the other thing that I think is worth saying is that intentions are not static. They change. So, although Sean mentioned the long- term intention of maintaining the regime, maintaining the Kim family's dynasty and their power, and not necessarily changing the internal bureaucratic and leadership structures of the country, the intention of what North Korea is hoping to achieve is going to change with long- term and short- term goals. And, I think we've seen that in, for example, nuclear negotiations, where North Korea has exchanged some concessions on its nuclear program for food aid. That should never be interpreted as North Korea saying that, " We want to give up our nuclear weapons program, that food is actually more important, and we've changed our position on what gives us security." That to me just says, " Well, right now we've identified a priority, and we've identified that engaging in negotiations with other countries is the best way to address that priority." I think the ability to think broadly about North Korea's intentions is beneficial. We can look right back to the early days of the regime, where the intention might have been to reunify the peninsula under North Korean control. I think it's very unlikely that that is now part of North Korea's intent, given the disparities in development between the two countries. I think the regime will be very aware that they are probably quite unlikely to be able to absorb South Korea as it is, with its development and its economic model under the North Korean leadership. And, also the cost of doing so is, I would say, very likely not that appealing to the leadership in North Korea. So, I think, yeah. Thinking about intent as a flexible thing, rather than something that is very static and very rigid and everything North Korea does is working towards that one particular goal. That said, I would also agree with Sean that the longevity and the survival of the regime is, I think, very likely always going to be that underpinning priority. But, looking at how actions versus words balance against each other and compare and contrast, I think, gives us a good indication of what the short- term and long- term intent might be.
Harry Kemsley: Yeah. Perfect. Sean?
Sean Corbett: And, that's just linked to necessity and pragmatism as well. If we see another famine and there are indications we may be in there, then they just cannot sustain their own population, then what option does he have but to start being a little bit more conciliatory? So, understanding the overall intent in terms of the pragmatic side... I mean, I was lucky enough to visit the border area and there is a huge international railway station just on the border with South Korea. I mean, it's even got timetables as well as... It's got everything there. But, of course, you talk to a South Korean and say, " It's a matter of when we open up, not if." Actually, there's gauge issues, there are all sorts of issues, and of course, the North Koreans are nowhere near it. But, things like if there was any movement towards opening that sort of stuff... I mean, we're a long way away from that now, but that would indicate the fact that, although it may not be palatable, it might be something they have to do to sustain their own population. That's a bit of an extreme example, but it's that sort of thing, where... The trades talks that happen on and off and the opening up of particular... I'm not sure what you call them, but they're almost like trade cities, where you can actually exchange some of the technology and there are North Koreans and South Koreans working together. That goes in peaks and troughs, and it's as much about pragmatism as it is about philosophy.
Harry Kemsley: So, Sean, Cristina, as always, time will evaporate on us. So, let's start to bring our thoughts towards summing up the one takeaway for the audience. I think for me, Sean, Cristina, and I'm going to go first, the one takeaway that I really want to underscore is this idea that with an enduring look at even a closed environment, you can get to a situation where you understand the trends, you understand the implication of what you're seeing, hearing, not seeing, not hearing, and that you can start to form those hypotheses about the potential futures in the foreseeable future. You can begin to understand what they might be. For me, that's a really important takeaway. Cristina, what's your one takeaway for the audience?
Cristina Varriale: So, I think it would be the importance of trends and patterns and building that picture over time. That then helps you understand what you know, but also what you don't know. And, I think that's incredibly important to identify those gaps, and then that helps you bound potential hypotheses, potential scenarios for what might be. So, by looking at those patterns and trends, almost ring fence" more likely," and" less likely," options, scenarios, outcomes, to understand what's going on in the country.
Harry Kemsley: In amongst all that trend analysis that you've talked about doing, what's the one thing that I can drive that can really help us understand or potentially understand where this is going?
Cristina Varriale: So, I think the point I would really like to make with trends and patterns, is that we're not looking to reach hard conclusions. We're not looking for definitive assessments about North Korea or what their intent is, or what's going on in the country. We're looking to develop boundaries and hypotheses that are more or less likely to develop a set of scenarios that could indicate what is or isn't happening, using the sources that we have to help bound those hypotheses. It's incredibly important to make sure that we are not just pursuing one narrative or one conclusion, because then we can also fall into pitfalls of confirmation bias as well. So, we're looking to generate options and possibilities and understand which is more or less likely.
Harry Kemsley: Perfect. Sean?
Sean Corbett: I guess, mine's a variation of what Cristina said, actually. It's understanding where OSINT fits into a particular intelligence problem. And, what I mean by that is that OSINT always a substitute for the exquisite highly classified stuff. And, it can't answer everything, all the time. Well, no intelligence can. But, in this case, it is exactly as Cristina said. Having that understanding, the deeper understanding of the trends and of the demographics and the internal tensions that make things work, to support the intelligence community, as opposed to in other cases where we've seen that OSINT can take the lead with the exquisite stuff, adding that extra, " so what?", value. So, it's just understanding where OSINT fits into any given challenge.
Harry Kemsley: Yeah. Great point. Thank you, Sean. Cristina, thank you so much for joining us today on this podcast around North Korea. It is a very interesting and very important discussion that we've had, about how we get to look inside what appears to be a closed box. As I've said, we've taken away quite a few good points there. What I'd like to do in the future, maybe we'll invite you back for a second conversation, is I think there are probably things happening in South and North Korea today that will have real implications for the coming years. Maybe, as you said in your summing up there, some of those big issues that are facing all of us in the world, like climate change might start driving, to use Sean's word, more pragmatism. If that's true, and we can see indicators of that starting to emerge in the work that you are doing, let's have that conversation. And, let's see where those indicators take us, in terms of where we might look in the future. But, to finish with Cristina, thank you again for your time today and for your expertise. We look forward to speaking to you again. Thank you.
Cristina Varriale: Thanks for having me.
Harry Kemsley: Pleasure. Sean, thank you as always. And, thank you to the listener for taking the time with us. Take care. Bye- bye.
Speaker 1: Thanks for joining us this week on the World of Intelligence. Make sure to visit our website janes. com/ podcast, where you can subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google Podcasts, so you'll never miss an episode.
In this podcast we discuss how Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) can be used to get a better understanding of North Korea and the challenges of gathering OSINT in a closed environment.