Seoul and Washington were apparently outfoxed by North Korea over the renegade country’s rocket launch Wednesday because they relied excessively on satellite images. "We saw the trees but failed to see the forest," said one government official here. "We erred since we were analyzing information based on North Korea's announcement that the launch would be delayed."
In mid-November, U.S. spy satellites spotted rocket components being transported from a missile plant near Pyongyang to the Tongchang-ri launch site. And on Dec. 8, a train was spotted by U.S. and South Korean intelligence satellites again carrying what appeared to be missile components from the missile plant to the launch pad. But North Korea announced on Dec. 9 that it was considering extending the launch window due to a technical glitch.
South Korean military and intelligence then apparently focused only on what problems might have developed with the rocket. Forecasts of the launch being delayed until next year began to gain weight. And when satellite images captured on Tuesday morning showed signs of parts of the rocket being dismantled, they became convinced that the launch was being scrapped.
But additional U.S. spy satellite photos taken on Tuesday afternoon showed all of the parts assembled and put on the launch pad, and indeed the North fired the rocket 18 hours later.
"There is a strong chance that North Korea knew what time South Korean and U.S. spy satellites would fly over the launch pad and leaked information to throw us off," a military source here said.
The KH-12 spy satellite, which tracks movements in North Korea, is powerful enough to spot a 15 cm object from 300 to 500 km in the air, but it does not remain stationary over the North and cannot provide 24-hour surveillance. This means that North Korea could have prepared for the launch when the spy satellites were not flying over it and pretended to be replacing components or fixing a major flaw in the rocket when they were.
The same gaffe happened in December last year, when South Korean and U.S. intelligence were oblivious to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s death until the North's official announcement two days later. "There is a chance of misjudgment as long as we rely on communication intercepts and satellite images in analyzing North Korean movements," said the military source. "We need to bolster human intelligence capabilities."