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Satellites document North Korea's dark ages


This picture of Earth at night is based on 1994-1995 satellite data from the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program Operational Linescan System, which maps the location of permanent lights on the planet. The borders of North Korea are outlined in white, with Japan off to the right, China to the left and South Korea below.

The death of North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, serves as a reminder that the hard-line communist country has long been in the dark — literally. A white border highlights the dark spot known as North Korea in this visualization of our planet's city lights.

This iconic "Earth at Night" picture is based on data gathered by military satellites in 1994-1995, just after Kim inherited power from his late father, Kim Il Sung. The darkness shows how much North Korea has lagged behind its neighbors — South Korea, China, Russia and Japan — in electrification and industrial development. Updates of the data sets show that there's been no change in North Korea's city-light situation between 1992 and 2009. Check out NOAA's "Science on a Sphere" webpage for more about the "Earth at Night" satellite data project.

A different kind of satellite project shows where North Korea has made progress during the dark age of Kim Jong Il: For years, the Institute for Science and International Security has been using satellite imagery to document the state of North Korea's nuclear program. Pictures acquired from orbit over the past couple of years show new construction at the country's Yongbyon nuclear center.

Here's a recent picture of the Yongbyon site from DigitalGlobe, a commercial satellite imaging venture. ISIS says the blue roofs on a gas centrifuge plant and an adjoining building appear to be part of increased construction activity:


This high-resolution satellite image from DigitalGlobe, acquired on Nov. 4, 2010, shows new construction at North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear site. The building with a deep blue roof is thought to be a gas centrifuge plant.

"Whatever the purpose, these activities show that more is going on at Yongbyon than commonly believed," ISIS analyst Paul Brannan wrote in his latest report. The future of North Korea's nuclear program will be a top concern for the United States and its allies as they assess Pyongyang's leadership transition — and satellites will provide the key data for that assessment.

These satellite views of North Korea serve as today's offering from the Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar, which presents views of Earth from space every day from now until Christmas. Catch up on these previous entries from the calendar:

Tip o' the Log to Ezra Klein's Wonkblog at The Washington Post and Afrikent.

Correction for 11 p.m. ET: I mistakenly referred to "Science on a Sphere" as being provided by NASA, when it's actually provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Sorry about that! Must have been because the first time I saw the "Science on a Sphere" display was at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

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