This photo reveals a surprising amount about North Korea's missile capabilities

MONTEREY, Calif. — What appears mundane to the untrained eye can offer surprising insights to the independent analysts tracking North Korea's military capabilities.

The flow of information out of the country is notoriously thin, so experts often turn to open-source material for clues. That's especially true for those operating outside government in the so-called parallel intelligence community.

Jeffrey Lewis and his team at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies here have spent years studying satellite imagery, military parades and propaganda hoping to glean revealing tidbits and understand the latest developments in North Korea.

For example, the serial number of a missile-bearing crane recently helped Lewis to deduce a weapon's range — leading him to believe it could likely hit the mainland U.S.

Image: North Korean missile

A photo released by North Korea showing its most advanced intercontinental ballistic missile allowed Lewis' team to identify the crane's manufacturer and its model. Searching online, they found the crane's length and load capacity — which allowed them to infer the missile's weight and range.

Kim Jong Un's regime tested that missile in November. Had it been fired at a lower angle, some experts believe that it may have had a range of 8,100 miles, placing the continental U.S. within reach.

Pyongyang's own videos also allow Lewis to measure any launched missile's size and speed — two variables that reveal the power of its engine. From there they model the missile's performance, so even if launched vertically, they can project whether it could potentially reach New York or Los Angeles.

Lewis' team has also poked holes in North Korean claims of prowess. A video released in January 2016 purporting to show a successful missile launch via submarine was actually two different launch videos spliced together. The submarine launch was really a failure: The missile exploded after ignition. But the official video cut to footage from a successful Scud missile launch from June 2014 and claimed success.

However, open-source analysis has its limits.

RELATED: Every missile launch conducted by North Korea in 2017

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Every missile launch conducted by North Korea in 2017
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Every missile launch conducted by North Korea in 2017
This photo taken on February 12, 2017 and released on February 13 by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) shows the launch of a surface-to-surface medium long-range ballistic missile Pukguksong-2 at an undisclosed location. North Korea said on February 13 it had successfully tested a new ballistic missile, triggering a US-led call for an urgent UN Security Council meeting after a launch seen as a challenge to President Donald Trump. / AFP PHOTO / KCNA via KNS / STR / South Korea OUT / REPUBLIC OF KOREA OUT ---EDITORS NOTE--- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS / THIS PICTURE WAS MADE AVAILABLE BY A THIRD PARTY. AFP CAN NOT INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, LOCATION, DATE AND CONTENT OF THIS IMAGE. THIS PHOTO IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY AFP. / (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - This undated picture released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) via KNS on March 7, 2017 shows the launch of four ballistic missiles by the Korean People's Army (KPA) during a military drill at an undisclosed location in North Korea. Nuclear-armed North Korea launched four ballistic missiles on March 6 in another challenge to President Donald Trump, with three landing provocatively close to America's ally Japan. / AFP PHOTO / KCNA VIA KNS / STR / South Korea OUT / REPUBLIC OF KOREA OUT ---EDITORS NOTE--- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS THIS PICTURE WAS MADE AVAILABLE BY A THIRD PARTY. AFP CAN NOT INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, LOCATION, DATE AND CONTENT OF THIS IMAGE. THIS PHOTO IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY AFP. / (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - A man walks past a television screen showing file footage of a North Korean missile launch, at a railway station in Seoul on March 22, 2017. A new North Korean missile test failed on March 22, the South and US said, two weeks after Pyongyang launched four rockets in what it called a drill for an attack on American bases in Japan. / AFP PHOTO / JUNG Yeon-Je (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
A man walks past a television screen showing file footage of a North Korean missile launch, at a railway station in Seoul on April 5, 2017. Nuclear-armed North Korea fired a ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan on April 5, just ahead of a highly-anticipated China-US summit at which Pyongyangs accelerating atomic weapons programme is set to top the agenda. / AFP PHOTO / JUNG Yeon-Je (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
A North Korean navy truck carries the 'Pukkuksong' submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father, Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, April 15, 2017. North Korea has escalated tests of its SLBM programme in the last year. Whilst the isolated country is not yet believed to have an operational submarine capable of carrying more than one missile at the time, its enemies are worried that a fully-functional SLBM would make tracking and intercepting a North Korean missile launch and the submarine from which it was fired very difficult. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY SEARCH "PARADE WID" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
This picture taken on May 14, 2017 and released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 15 shows a test launch of the ground-to-ground medium long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 at an undisclosed location. / AFP PHOTO / KCNA VIA KNS / STR / South Korea OUT / REPUBLIC OF KOREA OUT ---EDITORS NOTE--- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS THIS PICTURE WAS MADE AVAILABLE BY A THIRD PARTY. AFP CAN NOT INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, LOCATION, DATE AND CONTENT OF THIS IMAGE. THIS PHOTO IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY AFP. / (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
FILE PHOTO - The scene of the intermediate-range ballistic missile Pukguksong-2's launch test in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) May 22, 2017. KCNA/via REUTERS/File photo ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT.
People watch a television broadcasting a news report on North Korea firing what appeared to be a short-range ballistic missile, at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea, May 29, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - JUNE 08: People watch a television broadcast reporting the North Korean missile launch at the Seoul Railway Station on June 8, 2017 in Seoul, South Korea. According to the South Korean military, North Korea launched several cruise missiles from the east coast toward the ocean on June 8, 2017 in its fourth missile test in four weeks. The launch came amid the international tension surrounding the policy on North Korea, as a day before the newly elected South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, announced the suspension of the deployment of an controversial American missile defence system, and less than a week before the United Nations Security Council expanded the sanctions against North Korea. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
This picture taken and released on July 4, 2017 by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) shows the test-fire of the intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14 at an undisclosed location. North Korea declared on July 4 it had successfully tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile -- a watershed moment in its push to develop a nuclear weapon capable of hitting the mainland United States. / AFP PHOTO / KCNA VIA KNS / STR / South Korea OUT / REPUBLIC OF KOREA OUT ---EDITORS NOTE--- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS THIS PICTURE WAS MADE AVAILABLE BY A THIRD PARTY. AFP CAN NOT INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, LOCATION, DATE AND CONTENT OF THIS IMAGE. THIS PHOTO IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY AFP. / (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
A photo taken on July 6, 2017 shows a mass dance event as part of celebrations marking the July 4 launch of the Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile, in Pyongyang. Fireworks lit up the sky over Pyongyang's Juche Tower as North Korea celebrated its launch of intercontinental ballistic missile, a milestone in its decades-long weapons drive. On July 4 -- the United States' Independence Day -- it launched a Hwasong-14 rocket that analysts and overseas officials said had a range of up to 8,000 kilometres, which would put Alaska and Hawaii within reach. / AFP PHOTO / KIM Won-Jin (Photo credit should read KIM WON-JIN/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - This July 28, 2017 picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on July 29, 2017 shows North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), Hwasong-14 being lauched at an undisclosed place in North Korea. Kim Jong-Un boasted of North Korea's ability to strike any target in the US after a second ICBM test that weapons experts said could even bring New York into range - in a potent challenge to US President Donald Trump. / AFP PHOTO / KCNA VIS KNS / STR / South Korea OUT / REPUBLIC OF KOREA OUT ---EDITORS NOTE--- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS THIS PICTURE WAS MADE AVAILABLE BY A THIRD PARTY. AFP CAN NOT INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, LOCATION, DATE AND CONTENT OF THIS IMAGE. THIS PHOTO IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY AFP. TO GO WITH NKorea-nucelar-missile-Japan-SKorea-politics, FOCUS by Shingo Ito and Park Chan-Kyong / (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - AUGUST 26: People watch a television broadcast reporting the North Korean missile launch at the Seoul Railway Station on August 26, 2017 in Seoul, South Korea. North Korea launched several ballistic missiles into the East Sea resuming a provocative act in a month despite Washington's diplomacy-first approach toward the belligerent regime. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - This picture from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) taken on August 29, 2017 and released on August 30, 2017 shows North Korea's intermediate-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 lifting off from the launching pad at an undisclosed location near Pyongyang. Nuclear-armed North Korea said on August 30 that it had fired a missile over Japan the previous day, the first time it has ever acknowledged doing so. / AFP PHOTO / KCNA VIA KNS / STR / South Korea OUT / REPUBLIC OF KOREA OUT ---EDITORS NOTE--- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS THIS PICTURE WAS MADE AVAILABLE BY A THIRD PARTY. AFP CAN NOT INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, LOCATION, DATE AND CONTENT OF THIS IMAGE. THIS PHOTO IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY AFP. / The erroneous mention[s] appearing in the metadata of this photo by STR has been modified in AFP systems in the following manner: [at an undisclosed location near Pyongyang] instead of [in Pyongyang]. Please immediately remove the erroneous mention[s] from all your online services and delete it (them) from your servers. If you have been authorized by AFP to distribute it (them) to third parties, please ensure that the same actions are carried out by them. Failure to promptly comply with these instructions will entail liability on your part for any continued or post notification usage. Therefore we thank you very much for all your attention and prompt action. We are sorry for the inconvenience this notification may cause and remain at your disposal for any further information you may require. (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - SEPTEMBER 15: People watch a television broadcast reporting the North Korean missile launch at the Seoul Railway Station on September 15, 2017 in Seoul, South Korea. North Korea launched a ballistic missile over Japan just days after the U.N. Security Council adopted new sanctions against the regime over its sixth nuclear test on Sept. 3. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
People watch a television screen showing a file video footage of North Korea's missile launch, at a railway station in Seoul on November 29, 2017. North Korea test fired what appeared to be an intercontinental ballistic missile on November 29, in a major challenge to US President Donald Trump after he slapped fresh sanctions on Pyongyang and declared it a state sponsor of terrorism. / AFP PHOTO / JUNG Yeon-Je (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
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"The intelligence community has access to the best satellites in the world from radar to thermal to multi-spectral," explained Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., a senior analyst at 38 North, a project affiliated with Johns Hopkins University that analyzes North Korea. Government officials also have access to signals intelligence and sources around the world.

"You're talking about hundreds of thousands of people in the intelligence community working on an issue, as opposed to half a dozen," Bermudez said. "There's a level of difference."

In September, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test and its first of a miniaturized hydrogen bomb, intended for a long-range missile.

Mounting a nuclear warhead on a long-range ICBM is North Korea's next challenge. But Lewis says it's a question of when, not if, Pyongyang will get there.

More on MSNBC's 'On Assignment with Richard Engel' Friday at 9 p.m.

He believes only a "time machine" could stop North Korea from developing the ability to strike America with a nuclear weapon.

"There is no country that's been able to build an intercontinental ballistic missile that hasn't been able to figure out the rest of it," Lewis said.

Talk of a preventive strike is useless given how far the regime has already come, he says.

For Lewis, the only viable option for the U.S. and its allies is to accept a nuclear-armed North Korea and focus instead on shared interests: averting nuclear war. That means reducing tension on the peninsula — admittedly a difficult task, given that North Korea is "not the world's greatest neighbor."

Lewis' view is at odds with that of National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who said in December that the U.S. "can't tolerate the risk" of a nuclear-armed Pyongyang. "Accept and deter is unacceptable," he has said, with denuclearization still the policy objective of the U.S.

Image: North Korean military parade

North Korea has said in public statements that it wants an official end to the Korean War. The conflict was halted by a 1953 armistice but no peace treaty was ever signed. It also wants nothing short of full normalization of relations with the U.S. and to be treated with respect and as an equal in the global arena.

Kim fears the U.S.-led regime change that felled Moammar Gadhafi in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Lewis argues. That makes the nuclear program a safeguard against being overthrown and a priority with existential implications in Kim's eyes.

To Lewis, the best the U.S. can hope for is if a nuclear-armed North Korea wants to be left alone. A much worse scenario is an emboldened, aggressive regime that sinks South Korean ships and shells Japanese islands.

What remains to be seen is how the U.S. will react once North Korea tests a long-range ICBM at range — a necessary step before it can credibly claim to be able to hit the U.S. with a nuclear weapon.

Despite President Donald Trump's threat to rain "fire and fury" on North Korea, Lewis believes that the costs of nuclear war — millions of fatalities — will stop the administration from reaching that point.

"As unpleasant as it is and as bizarre as this government is, you have to find a way to live with each other," Lewis said.

Richard Engel reported from Monterey, and Kennett Werner from London.

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