Open Source Sleuth

Nuclear analyst Melissa Hanham talks about North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, how she tracks its proliferation activity, and why societal verification is the path of the future.

Interview by Jenny Johnston / June 15, 2018

If you want to know more about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, you should talk to Melissa Hanham. A senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Hanham spends her days scrutinizing open source data—from satellite images and seismic readings to social media—to uncover new details about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. And she usually finds them. Her keen sleuthing abilities have made her a leading expert on North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction procurement and proliferation networks—as well as a sought-out beta tester for new technologies designed to make the previously unseen visible. And did we mention she’s only 37 years old? In this interview, Hanham, an active member of the N Square Innovators Network, talks about the nature of her work, shares her vision for every day citizens acting as nuclear threat sensors, and reveals her thoughts on the future of nuclear weapons.

Q  How do you describe what you do?

A  I usually say that I study North Korea. If people really press, then I say I study weapons of mass destruction and how they spread. And that’s much more true, because it’s a diverse network of proliferation chains all over the world that helps make North Korea’s program go.

Q  How did you get into this work?

A  When I was about nine, I was watching the news with my dad and saw the Tiananmen Square protests. I saw a man standing in front of a tank, trying to block it from moving forward. Eventually he climbed on top to stop its progress. I don’t know what happened to “tank man,” as he came to be known, but it probably wasn’t good. Anyway, my dad explained what was going on, and I remember feeling a strong sense of injustice and a desire to prevent conflict. Those feelings stuck with me.

I studied international affairs in college, then started looking for a job in conflict resolution. My mother, being one of those power mothers, wanted to help my career. She’s a really smart lady, a biologist by training, but she didn’t quite get what I was studying and what conflict resolution was. She said she knew someone who knew someone who was influential in international relations. It turned out to be Richard Perle, one of the architects of the Iraq War, sometimes known as the Prince of Darkness. I rolled my eyes at her and was like, “Um, Mom, this guy’s never going to listen to me. He’s never going to give me career advice.” But she pestered me, so I gave her my resume, which listed things like that I had a minor in “women, gender, and sexuality” and had interned for a Democratic congressman.

I never expected to hear back from him, but I did. He was very polite and very forthright, but he wasn’t encouraging. He said, “Conflict resolution has doubtful use in the real world.” I realized right then that the people I had to reach weren’t liberal hippies. The people I had to reach were the Richard Perles. And the Richard Perles of the world would never take me seriously if I focused my career on conflict resolution. I would always be in this sort of sidelined category.

Q  So what did you do next?

A  I headed to Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs to study international security with a capital S. It was there that I studied some of the most serious and I would say traditional approaches to nuclear war. I learned about Realism. I took it very seriously. After Columbia, I joined International Crisis Group, an NGO that does research on conflict situations, at their field office in Seoul and later Beijing. Living in Seoul was really interesting, because it was very close to a potential conflict. But the South Koreans are stoic; they don’t get nearly as agitated about this prospect as people do in the West.


Q  Were you there in 2006 when North Korea tested its first nuclear device?

A  Yes—and it was another turning point in my life. Our office got so many calls from the press that our phone system crashed. But I remember looking out the window at noon and seeing people streaming out of their offices to eat lunch, just as they did every day, as if nothing unusual had happened. It was surreal. In the days following, I had to write a report about the incident. I speak Mandarin, so I looked up press accounts to see the official reactions from different countries in the region. But the thing I found really, really fascinating was: what did they explode? I remember acting like a detective, taking all the little bits of open source information that were available to identify the location of the explosion, to understand previous nuclear tests, and to piece together what it was that they had exploded. I found it deeply intellectually satisfying. It’s still my favorite thing to do—puzzle together pieces of open source information in order to understand what’s happening or how something works.

Q  Open source technologies were pretty primitive back then. How much could you actually sleuth out?

A  Well, Google Earth had just become available. It was not widely known in the policy community yet but it was like magic to me. I could find where the explosion took place, and I could understand the landscape and the topography. I could also look up wind patterns. After that first explosion, a small amount of what are called radionuclides escaped the tunnel where they did the test. Over the next few days, different sensors in South Korea and the US put out little bits of information about what was released. I could look up how the US and China and Russia and India and Pakistan had done their nuclear tests and make some safe guesses. In this case, I thought it was probably some kind of gun-type implosion device, because that’s generally where most countries start. There was a big debate at the time about whether the device had fizzled. Most people just assumed that it had, but later the debate got much richer when people started considering whether North Korea had intentionally built a small warhead, and that it was always meant to be small.

Q  Would you have focused your career on North Korea had that detonation not happened?

A  I don’t know. Originally I was focused more on China. But North Korea became a niche where I could specialize and excel, so I kept going. It’s rare for me anymore to look for a secondary source. Almost everything I do is an original source, and that to me is so powerful. It’s like doing puzzles. You have to be really disciplined. You have to make sure that you’re not finding what you think you’re going to find. And then you have to know the limitations of the tools. You need to understand that there are error bars around doing something like taking a measurement from a photo when you don’t know its origin. It may have a different focal length or the image may have been doctored in Photoshop. There are lots of caveats.

Q  Nowadays, when North Korea conducts a nuclear or missile test, how do you find out about it?

A  Typically it will happen early in the morning there, which is late afternoon or early evening in California. Most of the time I find out about it on Twitter. If it’s a nuclear test, then the very first thing I look at is seismic data. Underground nuclear testing often presents just like a small earthquake. I can look at the US meteorological service, at Japanese and Korean and Chinese seismic systems, and at what the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty Organization puts out as well. I actually have an alert set up on my phone to let me know whenever there is an earthquake in the part of the province of North Korea where they do their nuclear testing. But I still find out on Twitter first, usually.

If it’s a missile test, I look for information about where it was launched, how far it went, and how high it went—and from there I can make a good guess about what kind of missile it was. If it’s an intermediate or intercontinental ballistic missile, we might get a good sense of the acceleration and range. Most of North Korea’s missiles are road mobile, so they can be launched from anywhere. But they have some favorite places, and we remember those places. If the missile test was successful, we’ll usually get images the next day in state media. We might see a photograph, especially if Kim Jong-un was there, and he usually is these days. Then we’ll get photographs of them preparing for the launch and doing a launch. We may even get a video.

If there are photographs, we can confirm the missile type and whether we’ve seen it before. We can take measurements inside the photographs. It’s a bit tedious, and you have to be pretty careful, because a photograph is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional thing. But at the end of the day what you’re really doing is counting pixels. We can learn the length of something or its diameter. That’s important for missiles, because it can tell us how big the engine is and how big the fuel and oxidizer tanks are, if it’s a liquid fuel missile. If it’s a solid fuel missile, it tells us how big the motor is. And, of course, we want to measure for how big the warhead is. If we have a video, then we can measure how far the missile has advanced on each frame of the video. Once I have the acceleration, we can make good guesses about the thrust.

Q  Of all the kinds of open source information available to you, what’s most useful?

A  I think of open source as any kind of information that’s not classified or secret—so, in a way, everyone in our field is doing open source research by grabbing a library book. But the tools that are making a big difference in my research are the ones that have transitioned from being only available to governments, and only certain governments, to being consumable by the public. Satellite imagery is probably the best example. It used to be that only the Soviet Union and the US had satellites that could take images of Earth from space. And now it’s not just that more countries can do it, but that companies can do it as well. It’s still expensive, but it’s much, much less expensive than it used to be. Back in the ‘90s one image would cost thousands and thousands of dollars, and now it’s hundreds and hundreds. It creates a more level playing field. And it gives academia and civil society the opportunity to analyze the narrative that is being generated—say, about whether a certain country possesses weapons of mass destruction—and to look for compelling evidence about whether it’s true. That being said, I don’t think you should ever use a single source of information. The trick is to combine many types.

Q  Countries that have or want nuclear capabilities usually have some ability and certainly a strong desire to hide their proliferation activity. How much is visible and how much isn’t?

A  A lot is visible. Nuclear weapons programs are incredibly complicated and expensive, and you can definitely hide them some of the time. But you can’t hide them all of the time and you can’t hide them from everyone. Having open source researchers not just inside intelligence agencies but also in civil society means there are more people looking, and it increases the cost of having a secret or illicit kind of program. And our ability to detect change or identify objects—which is how we find much of this activity—continues to improve. Most of the time, when I’m looking at satellite images, I’m looking to see if something has changed. Did this cooling stack have steam coming out of it, or did it stop? Did the cars move? Did the gates open and close? When we think of satellite imagery, mostly what we see is light from the sun that is reflected as red, green, or blue into our eyeballs. And we see it that way because that’s what our eyes, our sort of homemade sensors, can see. But there are many more bands of light that our eyes can’t see that still can give us important information. I can use tools to process different wavelengths of light. Near infrared light can help me see healthy vegetation. Environmental and agricultural groups have been using this information for years to understand crop health and deforestation. But its original discovery was in the military to look for camouflage or to see when a missile has burned or disrupted the vegetation.


Meanwhile, there are more sensors in the commercial sector than ever before. We are starting to get access to hyperspectral information and radar now, though it remains expensive and there are few people in the open source world trained to use it. Synthetic aperture radar from Airbus’s Terra-SAR-X sensor means I can “see” without the benefit of sunlight. Clouds, fog, and night are no longer obstacles. Occasionally we can even see through a roof. We also have the rise of constellations of sensors and video from space. Companies like Planet now take images of nearly every place on earth every single day.

We also have new tools to analyze visual data. We are starting to use machine learning to understand and detect surface to air missiles around the world, for example. As a human I can do that, and I can be very systematic. But I would still be searching slowly across terrain for the specific pattern. And every day I would have many, many more images to search through. So it’s really powerful to know that soon machine learning will help us identify more and more objects.

Q  These capabilities seem especially important in the case of North Korea, given how idiosyncratic their nuclear program is.

A  That’s one reason why North Korea continually gets underestimated. They’re not doing it the way other countries did it. We keep trying to measure them with that same ruler, and when we do that it always seems like they’re coming up short. But they’re not. They’re just doing it differently. It may not be the most efficient or accurate way of producing a nuclear weapons program, but they’re getting it done. And they’re doing it despite sanctions, despite trade interruptions, despite their ships being boarded. They are using a vast and really crafty network of individuals and front companies all over the world to get the data, the design information, and the materials they need. They’ve done such a good job that they’ve got much of the manufacturing capability in the country already at this point—and it makes sanctions and export controls even more difficult, because there’s not much left to keep out.

Q  What about all those North Korean propaganda photos? Can you “see inside” them to tell whether they’re real?

A  Part of what North Korea desperately wants is for us to believe they have these weapons as deterrents—a way to ensure we don’t attack them. We always took North Korea’s photos with a grain of salt, but we could not effectively determine all the ways their photographs might have been falsified to mislead us. Now we have access to software called Tungstene that does some of that. Essentially, it is a series of mathematical algorithms that can be run over a photo file. Some are focused on how the photo compresses or how the light or noise flows through the photo. If someone has changed parts of the photograph and not the other parts, it’ll leave some mathematical traces. The software can’t tell us what was changed or why it was changed, but it will tell us this quadrant is not the same as these other quadrants of the photo. But it’s up to a human to puzzle out what is expected noise and what was introduced through alteration.

Q  Does North Korea know about your work?

A  Yes. North Korea also has active chemical and biological weapons programs, and in 2015 I wrote about a facility called the Pyongyang Biotech Institute, which Kim Jong-un had visited. North Korea announced that it was going to make organic pesticides, but all the equipment inside was dual use: it could be used for civilian programs to make biopesticides but it could also be used to make the bacteria that causes the disease anthrax. After that, KCNA, North Korea state-run media, called me out as riffraff and a trickster. Drawing attention to that facility seemed to annoy them more than what I’ve found about their nuclear weapons. But we are on their radar. The IP addresses at Middlebury are blocked from North Korean websites, but we still find ways. We’re trying to get a handle on how often we get cyberattacks and where they’re coming from, but I am definitely feeling it. I do not believe the thing I do is secret or should be secret. But something creeping into our academic field is intimidation through cyberattack. I don’t even like talking about it because I don’t want to invite more attacks, but I suspect a lot of researchers are dealing with it—or maybe don’t even know that they are dealing with it.


Q  At CNS you work with a team, so collaboration is basically built into your job description. But what’s your read on what collaboration looks within the larger weapons research analyst world?

A  It’s tough. There is a limited amount of funding in this space. I mean, you really can’t hug what we do. Peace is warm and fuzzy. But nuclear death? Not so much. So we’re all competing for the same funding, and that breeds a kind of competitiveness that can choke collaboration. I’ve also had ideas taken, which makes me reluctant to be as public with them. But my natural inclination, my spirit, is always to collaborate. Part of the reason I like working at CNS so much is that I’m not doing this by myself. I’m doing it with more than a dozen other people who can help me, even just by letting me bounce ideas off them. And more ideas make for more complete understanding. It’s not possible for one person to understand all the interdisciplinary pieces of any one thing. Almost everyone at CNS speaks two languages, and we have regional expertise from all over the world. We also have two physicists and a biologist on staff, plus lawyers and diplomats, and I can reach out to experts on all sorts of things in order to better understand a phenomenon I’m seeing or the place I’m looking at. The only challenge is the logistics of consuming all those ideas and weighting them appropriately in order to come to an understanding.

Q  Collaboration also seems challenging in a field that has some resistance to innovation and to working in new ways.

A  Nuclear weapons were almost mythical. There are a lot of very strong feelings about them that have been engrained for decades. The old guard is not ready for new people to enter. And on some level I get that. I don’t know that I fear and respect nuclear weapons the same way that someone who grew up in the ‘50s, ‘60s, or ‘70s does. I never ducked and covered, and I never worked in a national lab. I never held a piece of plutonium. That new people are pushing their way into the field and that they may not hold the same regard for original things doesn’t sit well with everyone. But I think broadening the pool of people who work on this is always a good idea.

Q  All these technologies you’re using—and that are continuing to emerge—for detecting and monitoring nuclear weapons seem way more sophisticated than the weapons themselves.

A  Nuclear weapons are not new technology anymore. They are not cutting edge in any way. Many states keep these weapons because they feel it ensures strategic stability and the status quo. But other weapons are being developed that either reduce the ability of a nuclear weapon to carry out its mission or offer a similar level of destruction. Hypersonic weapons, biological weapons, satellites, artificial intelligence, and cyberattacks are displacing nuclear weapons as the end-all and be-all of weaponry, because they either undermine the weapon or compete with it.

Q  You train and work with a lot of Millennials. Do they bring different perspective to this work? What can we expect from this younger generation as they take on this mythical territory?

A  The biggest challenge is having them know and care about nuclear weapons. They’ve heard of them. They’ve maybe seen them in movies. They know that they make very big explosions. But what terrifies me the most is when people talk about nuclear weapons as though they were just very large conventional weapons, which they are not. The young people I come in contact with, though, are self-selecting because they’ve chosen to study this at Middlebury. They’ve already chosen to care about weapons of mass destruction. Once they recognize what nuclear weapons are and what it means to have them increase in number or spread to new countries, then you have a really powerful ally. Millennials have grown up with technology and they’re very visual, so they can learn and move through this kind of information quickly. And because they don’t have the experience or the history that older generations have with nuclear weapons, they can bring a new kind of perspective.

Q  In 2016, CNS launched Geo4Nonpro—an experiment in harnessing the wisdom of the crowd to interpret the kinds of satellite images of known or suspected WMD sites that you comb through every day. What did you find?

A  We invited experts from around the world—science and technology experts, as well as experts in certain policy areas or regions—to interpret and annotate satellite images of areas where weapons of mass destruction are to be found. What we really wanted to know was: are we missing something? Would individual experts or the crowd as a whole see things that we don’t? We also wanted to test out the feasibility of creating a public platform for WMD verification. Every month we’d post batches of images of known or suspected WMD sites that posed questions or a challenge that might be answered by a human more easily than by a machine-learning algorithm. After a year, we compared how the CNS team did relative to the experts who participated.

We found some interesting things. The experts were more interested in sites that were in the news than ones that were not. This maps to what we know about crowdsourcing, which is that people are more willing to engage with things that are both relevant and familiar. We also noticed that most of their analysis focused on identifying objects rather than figuring out their meaning. In other words, they were accurate with their pins but not deeply analytical. Right now we’re taking the lessons learned from our first year and using it to tweak our approach. I think the main takeaways are that it was a good idea, but it would be better with better design. I am really happy to be launching a 2.0 version this year. I think people will find it much easier to use, and we will start sharing more kinds of data. Stay tuned.

Q  What’s the relationship between government and civil society when it comes to detonation detecting? How does the work you do relate to or dovetail with what government analysts are interpreting and assessing? 

A  Truthfully, I don’t know. The flow of information is one way. I am a Canadian citizen, and I can’t just call up a US intelligence agency and ask. But I do see some ways that civil society can be really useful. Having an open source debate in civil society can test out hypotheses and introduce new perspectives. I will never have the same exquisite capabilities or sheer number of resources of a government, but I can work nimbly and collaborate comparatively easily. Intelligence work is very interdisciplinary. Sometimes I need access to a physicist, a truck driver, a sheep herder—and the connected nature of social media means I can get their perspective. Breaking down silos of information can be really helpful. Open source research is available to the public and to governments, so it can be tested and shared across borders.

There are ethical considerations that we are still navigating. I hope that I never inadvertently harm someone by publishing my results. I hope that I never help North Korea troubleshoot a missile. These are things I worry about. Government analysts are tightly regulated. We are not. There is a lot of responsibility that comes with this research but it is not codified yet.

To me the most powerful part of open source is that you can create a more informed citizenry. Everyone has a stake in this. Nuclear war can be an extinction-level event. If this work gets done in the posts of Reddit or on the fringes of book clubs, so be it. You don’t like my data? You don’t trust my methods? Then show me your work. Let’s figure it out together. We’re no longer in a world where this gets decided in whispers and top secret documents, and we need all the help we can get. Maybe a skeptic will use some of the free software I use to verify what I’ve done to see if I make sense or not. I hope so. It’s better for everyone.


Q  You’ve spoken before about a future in which not just experts but regular citizens act almost as nuclear threat sensors, contributing in their own ways to what we know about the presence and even the intention around nuclear weapons. How do we get there?

A  I think we grow the existing capacity. If we start, at a very young age, cultivating critical thinking skills and a desire to learn and grow and meet others and accept that two pieces of information can coexist or that people can disagree, I think we can make a really powerful human sensor network. We’re used to relying on information to come from above, and then for us to learn it. But the way we acquire information is changing. It’s becoming much more dispersed. It’s not vetted by an editorial board or an elected official or a declassified intelligence brief. All of these primary sources—in the form of pictures and text and satellite images and video—are coming to us directly. But we need the critical thinking skills and the background information to understand what we’re seeing and to make sense of it. It can be really powerful to have hundreds, thousands, millions, or even billions of people looking at a problem together. We’re already seeing that in biology. But it will only work if we have the skills to do it together and the trust in one another.

Q  What’s your plausible best-case scenario for North Korea?

A  That the US and North Korea deter each other in the short term. There will be a period of very tense standoffs. But over time—unfortunately, a great deal of time—we will be able to negotiate a peaceful disarmament and resolution of the standoff. I don’t think nondemocratic societies can last forever, but North Korea has lasted far longer than anyone expected. I think in time that trade, culture, and exposure to the outside world will be pacifying, and that there is a place for North Korea in the world, maybe even as a unified Korea. But none of that will happen at the barrel of a gun. The most dangerous scenarios—a sudden collapse, a nuclear explosion, a misunderstanding or accident—those are the kinds of things that may happen if we push too hard too fast.

Q  Do you think the world will ever be rid of nuclear weapons?

A  My personal opinion is that nuclear weapons have outlived their utility and they are now more dangerous than they are useful. Keeping them safe and secure is enormously expensive, and their capabilities do not match national security goals anymore. I think probably we will be able to disarm. But there will always be a group that wants to have a nuclear weapon and we cannot erase the technology. And because we cannot unlearn it, we’re going to have to get ready for very complex and very difficult monitoring and verification environments. So, I think disarmament is possible—but not soon, unfortunately. I think I’m going to spend my entire life trying to come up with verification and monitoring capabilities so that eventually we can get to a place where states will agree to disarm and go to zero—and then remain at zero.