“The whole point of the Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret,” Dr Strangelove tells the Soviet ambassador in Stanley Kubrick’s satire on cold-war fears of nuclear conflict. The point is not lost on North Korea, which has recently been repeating its threat to nuke the White House until “not even ashes are left.” To bolster the warnings the official news agency churns out pictures of the dictator, Kim Jong Un, in military set pieces: Mr Kim giving launch orders at a satellite centre (with an ash tray in view); Mr Kim in a fur hat guiding a simulated ballistic missile re-entry; Mr Kim in the conning tower of a steaming submarine (South Korean intelligence recently reported that one of the North’s submarines had sunk, for unclear reasons). Most striking of all, on March 9 Mr Kim (pictured) was next to a silver orb, presented on courtly red velvet, that North Korea claimed was a miniaturised nuclear warhead – though it is highly unlikely to have the capability for that.
Weapons wonks pore over such images for clues as to North Korea’s actual capabilities. Melissa Hanham of the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies, an American think-tank, says that includes gauging parts using the size of other objects in the image, and collating shots from different angles to glean a three-dimensional picture. James Pearson of Reuters enlarged a map in view on a desk in a recent photograph, overlaid it with Google Earth’s imaging and tilted it to give a more useful, overhead perspective – revealing one North Korean missile target to be a nuclear plant in South Korea.
Last year Ms Hanham surmised that a pesticide plant Mr Kim visited was probably making anthrax. Yet, she says, the images may have been meant as a “little wink” to America, which had recently been found mistakenly to have sent live, rather than inactivated, anthrax to a South Korean military base for training.
North Korea puts out more propaganda imagery than ever, often with things like the Young Leader’s cigarettes airbrushed out. But where Pyongyangologists used to pinpoint Mr Kim’s whereabouts through his outings and his dynasty’s famous “on-the-spot guidance” at factories, farms and plants, now he is pictured inside anonymous military command buildings and tents: at once everywhere – and nowhere.