Satellite Imagery of Pyongyang: What is Missing in this Analysis?

CNN recently posted a video from the Canadian company Urthecast with the headline “Space photos show something’s missing in North Korea.” It was hard to tell if this was supposed to be a news story or an infomercial. As it turned out, this could have been filed under “fake news.”

The pleasantly-toned audio attached to the piece observed that despite the nice infrastructure in Pyongyang, there are “very few cars on the highway” and “very few people out and about” visible from the satellite 400 km above the earth. This, the announcer says, “raises new ideas and new understandings, and certainly a lot of questions about life in Pyongyang.”

Indeed, it raised one particular question. What were they talking about? Experts on North Korea who have been visiting Pyongyang for years, including very recently have noted that there is a lot of traffic—a lot of cars, a lot of trucks, and a lot of taxis. Leaving aside the cartoonish notion that the regime gathered all available vehicles and staged them to pile up at intersections or speed past in a ballet to impress us, what could the Urthecast announcer have meant? Charitably, it could be that this is a case of “very few” being in the eye of the beholder. “Very few” compared to what? No, Pyongyang doesn’t have the road-clogging traffic of Beijing, or the gridlock in mid-day New York. Yet over the past few years, veteran observers have noted a steady increase in traffic in Pyongyang. According to one observer, “when I was first there in 1996, I could count the number of cars going past the hotel over the stretch of 15 or 20 minutes on the fingers of one hand. On my last visit, in 2010, that had changed dramatically, and in 2016, the increase was more dramatic still. Even more interesting than cars were the numbers of trucks and taxis—evidence of increased commercial activity and economic life not apparent twenty or even ten years ago.”

A CNN analyst describes satellite imagery of Pyongyang during a segment, "Space photos show something's missing in North Korea," that was posted on November 25, 2016. (Source: CNN)
A CNN analyst describes satellite imagery of Pyongyang during a segment, “Space photos show something’s missing in North Korea,” that was posted on November 25, 2016. (Source: CNN)

As for people “out and about,” again the question has to be, compared to what? New York sidewalks tend to be overflowing, especially in Midtown. On the Upper East Side during the day? Not so much. Sidewalks in Beijing are often less crowded, though there are exceptions. Parts of Seoul have a lot of foot traffic during particular times of the day, while other areas do not. In Pyongyang? Depends on where you go, and when. And bear in mind, the population of Pyongyang is only a fraction of New York City, Beijing, or Seoul.

There is no doubt that satellite imagery is a boon, and the technological advances are breathtaking. But the dangers of leaping to conclusions multiply the more “reality” seems to appear on fantastically sharp pictures from space. There still has to be “ground truth.” Even CNN’s own reporters in Pyongyang could have added a little of that.

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