A research associate with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Margaret Croy MANPTS ‘18 talks about North Korean WMD proliferation, her unusual career trajectory, and opportunities found in unexpected circumstances.
Researching the nuclear activities of North Korea (DPRK) consumes a great deal of my time at the moment. I spend most of my day looking at satellite images of North Korea, analyzing their state media reports, looking for other information in the open source domain, and trying to figure out the amount of progress they have made on the projects they are working on. My main focus at the moment is their nuclear fuel cycle, and my goal is to go through it and better understand it from start to finish.
One of the things that we have been trying to do is to challenge our assumptions about how the North Koreans view their production of nuclear weapons. That is, we’re attempting to analyze their activities not through the lens of how we might do things (a “Western” lens) but rather trying to step outside of our usual frame of thinking and consider the way North Korea might approach the same challenges. And it’s not even enough to try to see beyond a “Western” frame of reference; to a certain degree, the Russian or Chinese models for producing nuclear weapons are helpful when assessing North Korea (as is the U.S. workflow), but none of these models can simply be transposed onto the DPRK—it’s a distinct culture and society that has formed distinct ways of thinking about these issues, just like any other nation-state. This seems obvious, but it is so easy to slip into a set of assumptions about how another is doing something just because you do it that way. As analysts, we have to be very mindful of this pitfall.
I have done open source research focused on other regions of the world, and I will certainly say that North Korea’s clamp on information is firm and challenging. That said, I am consistently surprised by how much information it is possible to find.
My colleague, Dave Schmerler MANTPS ’15, has a magical ability when it comes to ferreting out information, discovering it on all corners of the Internet, and noticing things in satellite imagery that have sometimes gone unnoticed in the open source world for years. We call him “geolocation Jesus.” Jeffrey Lewis is, of course, like this too. I’m grateful to have had them, Melissa Hanham, and Catherine Dill as mentors and colleagues. There’s no better set of people to learn from.
This type of research is more of a teachable skill than I had originally thought or guessed. We grow up doing research papers throughout elementary school, middle school, high school, college, graduate school, and beyond. The classic methods of research still apply to the problems I work on every day, but there are so many other tools and tricks and new technologies that I’ve learned to use and leverage for my research at CNS. I think back and go, Gosh, if only I had known how to do this years ago.
I studied cultural anthropology at Dartmouth College, and I found it fascinating because the discipline sought to explain how and why various groups of people make decisions the way they do, and how they conceptualize their existence in wider society.
A marvelous anthropology class led me to develop an interest in the Middle East, and later, I was fortunate to go and work in Kuwait for a term. To someone born and raised in the U.S., the Middle East seemed a relatively small geographic region (though the anthropologist in me must point out that the term “Middle East” itself is contested, as is the landmass it describes). And yet, there is such diversity of language, culture, religion, ethnicity, tribalism, and nationalism in this relatively small landmass when compared to American conceptions of size. To me, that richness of diversity, which is both so lovely and which is also often blamed for the many hardships facing the region, was fascinating to study as an anthropologist. Eventually, I started to consider radicalization patterns within the context of the Middle East, both historically and in modern times. How does someone transform some point of dissatisfaction in their lives into a willingness to carry out a terrorist attack? What are the steps in that process?
Then? Then I became a professional photographer. [Laughs.] I had my own business throughout college, and when I graduated, I moved to New York City to run it full time.
Life circumstances led me to close my business, leave the East Coast, and return to California, where I had grown up. As I started to think about my next move, or next step in life, I kept returning to that question of radicalization that had begun to form in college—how does it happen? Why does it happen? What can we do to prevent it? I also found myself missing school and academia, and the type of structured learning that transpires in such an environment. Bounded by geography, I started looking for graduate programs that could be a good fit for myself and my family. Then I discovered the Middlebury Institute, and I thought, This is the perfect solution for me … if I can get in!
Just as my background in anthropology has helped me both with my pursuit of graduate education and with the work I do now, so has my photography experience. Spending a lot of time with a camera up to your face teaches you to look at the world in a different way, and it teaches you to be quite observant. So now, when I look at a satellite image, I try to put myself back in the same frame of mind as when I was composing photographs. No detail is too small to examine. My anthropology background always serves as a good reminder not to consider the world, and the problems I’m studying, without recognizing my own perspective and biases, which is useful both in this work and in life in general.
May I add one more thing? Perhaps the most important, really. The reason I moved back to California, the reason I closed my business, and the reason I started to look at graduate schools was because my mother had gotten a diagnosis of early-onset Lewy body dementia and Parkinson’s. She lived in California and I felt absolute conviction that coming home to take care of her was both the right thing to do and what I wanted to do, so my search for what I was going to do next was very much bounded by geography. I said earlier that the Middlebury Institute was a perfect solution, and a big part of that—in addition to location and mission and the NPTS program—was the kindness and patience shown to me by the faculty as I navigated being a student, a caretaker, a graduate research assistant, and a human in my mid-20s all at once. They were so gracious and supportive as I worked through it all, and for that, I will be forever grateful.
My mom passed away about a month ago, so I’ve been reflecting on how … let’s call them a series of accidents … has led me to where I am today. I didn’t expect to close a business that was doing well, I didn’t expect to move back across the country with no concrete plan of what to do next, I obviously didn’t expect to lose my mother in my mid-20s; I saw none of this coming. But I’ve found a lot of hope and solace in the notion that while this path of mine has had substantial challenges, it also has yielded opportunities I could not have imagined were possible. I’ve been fortunate to work at the Naval Postgraduate School, the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and CNS, first as a graduate research assistant, and now in my capacity as a research associate. I’ve been the youngest person (and the only lady!) in the room for a number of meetings, seminars, conferences, and dialogues where I’ve thought, I never imagined I would get to sit here and witness history in action (full disclosure: I’m a massive history nerd). I met my husband in the Middlebury Institute Summer Intensive Language Program; we were in the same Arabic class. A friend offered to let me write as a coauthor on a paper near the beginning of my time in the NPTS program, and I fell head-over-heels for the nonproliferation and arms control world. I never would have expected to have such good fortune and such sadness coincide, but the life I find myself fortunate to be leading now has been a beautiful salve to my grief. I can’t help but be grateful.
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