Studying North Korea via satellite

Commercially available satellite imagery used to monitor construction and food production

Long-term remote sensing of North Korea using satellite images has helped overseas researchers build up a profile of the country including food production and military installations.

Red Hat JBoss security software engineer David Jorm, who is studying geography and mathematics at the University of Queensland, recently completed a weather study which focused on the famine that occurred in North Korea during the 1990s.

“My research was around using satellite data to try and map the impact of the famine. I had a theory that because people would be harvesting crops before they were ready this would result in land degradation,” he said.

“From satellite sensing, you would be able to see that they had a certain level of agricultural productivity and after the famine it was reduced. I did this research and proved that this is what happened.”

In doing the research, Jorm also found that the sources of historical satellite data were very limited as there were only two satellites producing relevant data and the archives were difficult to access.

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“If you are looking for data now, there are a variety of free and commercially sources available and these provide temporal resolution so you have a good idea of what is happening," he said.

For example, Google Maps now contains names of towns, provinces and street names in North Korea. This was due to crowd-sourced information entered into Google's online Map Maker tool.

There are other satellite map resources such as a website called 38 North which contains map imagery that is updated regularly.

“What people have done, using these map layers, is find sites of interest such as military installations and watch for updates,” Jorm said.

In addition, people in South Korea are using high powered antennas to stream North Korean TV onto YouTube and other file sharing websites.

“Information is starting to get out, despite the overall media embargo,” he said.

According to Jorm, there is a big “information void” in North Korea due to the media being controlled by the state. For example, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) only reports favourable stories.

“There is a school of thought that dissemination of information is how you affect positive change in these situations.”

For example, he said the satellite imagery could mean the North Korean government would no longer be able to hide its prison labour camps from the outside world.

Jorm is scheduled to present at the upcoming security conference AusCERT in May.

IDG Communications is an official media partner for AusCERT 2013

Follow Hamish Barwick on Twitter: @HamishBarwick

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU, or take part in the Computerworld conversation on LinkedIn: Computerworld Australia

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Tags auscertmappingGoogle Mapssatellitenorth koreaDavid JormAusCERT 2013

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