Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Kim Jong-un's First Decade - A Decade of Military Growth

This is the third of the supplemental articles for the Kim Jong-un's First Decade in Power series. It details the various infrastructure changes and weapon developments of North Korea's conventional forces over the last decade.

Screenshot of video showing a massive artillery exercise on April 25, 2017.

As I recently laid out in Sharpening the Treasured Sword, there’s plenty to talk about when it comes to the nuclear issue and there’s no shortage of analysts and think tanks who provide valuable information on the topic. What often gets overlooked, however, is how North Korea’s conventional military has changed over the years, particularly regarding training, and how the parallel national economy operated by the military has altered the literal landscape of defense infrastructure.

The US Defense Intelligence Agency’s 2021 North Korea Military Power report noted,

Kim Jong Un has also focused his attention on the KPA’s conventional capabilities.  From 2011-2017 Kim kept up a steady pace of public engagements with military units to emphasize the KPA’s centrality to the North Korean regime, and has directed improvements in the realism and complexity of military training.  To that end, Kim presided over high-profile artillery firepower exercises, Air Force pilot competitions, and special forces raid training on mock-ups of the South Korean presidential residence.

Using the locations mapped in the AccessDPRK 2021 Pro Map, I want to examine the evidence of on-the-ground changes and what adaptations have occurred under Kim Jong-un to the country’s conventional forces, and how these changes have positioned the North Korean armed forces to take greater advantage of their limited technology and supplies so they still pose a credible threat in spite of such limitations.

Within the AccessDPRK map are over 13,000 military-related sites. However, a single missile or navy base could include a dozen other sites as individual locations of interest within those bases are identified. Thus, the focus of this supplemental report will be on the primary aspects of North Korea’s military infrastructure: individual bases as a whole, major artillery sites, the KPA Navy, and KPA Air Force. So, this brought the scope of research down to around 5,000 relevant locations.

As they’re associated with the nuclear issue, the country’s missile bases are excluded from this report as are the numerous static fortifications throughout the country. While static fortifications may have a role to play in delaying an invasion, and though some sites have been constructed by Kim Jong-un, they are not part of North Korea’s offensive capabilities nor would they play any sort of active role during a conflict in the same way a radar site or airbase would.

I’m also not going to include airfields that were constructed or modernized for VIP use. Sites like the Sanghung-dong VIP Helibase or palace runways tell a story in their own right, but I don’t feel they belong in the scope of this report.


KPA Bases

A map of bases that have either been constructed or undergone major renovations since Kim Jong-un came to power.

In the process of mapping the country, which I began in late 2012, two main trends became obvious. One, that there was some sort of overall restructuring taking place. And, secondly, that there was a huge emphasis being placed on military training.

Although these changes began years prior, it was at the Seventh Central Military Commission meeting in 2019 that the KNCA reported on major reforms within the military. Particularly, the government wanted to address “irrational structure and defects in machinery and some shortcomings in other military [activities]” and the meeting discussed the “decisive improvement of the overall national defence and core matters for the sustained and accelerated development of military capability for self-defence.”

The reference to “machinery” wasn’t talking about industrial machines but was referring to the military bureaucracy and how the military carries out its goals, from training and readiness to utilizing personnel.

The Seventh Central Military Commission thereby served to openly codify what had already been happening on the ground for some time.

Based on the AccessDPRK 2021 Pro Map, there have been at least 127 bases that were either newly constructed or underwent a major renovation since 2012 (with heightened activity from 2014-2017). And, reflecting North Korea’s military strategy, most of the new construction has been at sites within 100 km of the DMZ, which is where roughly half of all KPA personnel is stationed.

Among these facilities are over 50 training bases of various types. Ranging from small collections of obstacle courses and firing ranges to large tank training fields and urban warfare centers, it is clear that the organizational system for training has been reformed and as part of that, that the bases themselves underwent a period of renovation to better provide the types of training the regime deems necessary.

A few examples can be found at the following sites.

  • In 2014, the large training complex near Yongbyon (39.850105° 125.675129°) was modernized and an urban warfare center (or MOUT = military operations on urban terrain) was added that includes a mockup of the headquarters building of the ROK combined forces complex in Gyeryongdae. 
  • Soe-gol, the largest single training base in Pyongyang, had a vast driving course added in 2019 that has 11 km of paths and multiple obstacle sites (berms, water obstacles, etc). Other portions of the base have also been renovated or expanded over the decade. 
  • An example of a more traditional training complex can be found at 38.422863° 128.102209°. It was established in 2016 and contains an obstacle course with hurdles, ditches, a trench, and a 100-meter-long pool.
  • Lastly, a 1.5 sq. km. complex near the Ryokpo Leadership Residence (38.895717° 125.940640°) was completely reconstructed from 2014-15 and includes multiple distinct training areas. While the exact identification of the complex is unknown to me, its layout and building designs suggest that it includes ideological training beyond what is normally provided and is used by elite military units.

As the US Defense Intelligence Agency's military power report also noted, “North Korea has emphasized SOF unit training with particular focus on improving their capability to raid key government installations in the South.”

As part of that, North Korea constructed scale-models of South Korea’s Blue House, the DMZ Joint Security Area (Panmunjom), and the aforementioned Gyeryongdae model.

The Blue House is of particular interest because in 1968 thirty-one North Korean agents infiltrated the grounds of the Blue House in an attempt to assassinate South Korean president Park Chung-hee. The model was constructed in 2016 and “raids” have been carried out at least twice, with paratroopers and other special forces attacking the building.

No large-scale attack exercises are known to have taken place at either the mock Panmunjom or Gyeryongdae sites but both structures are located at large training bases and provide the KPA with opportunities to familiarize themselves with the locations and how to attack them. However, Panmunjom offers more than just war training.

The timing of its construction in late 2017, while not built for the summit no one knew would happen, could have given Kim Jong-un and particularly his security guards the ability to do dry runs, walking through the complex and knowing how and where to move. It may even now serve to train the border guards in the region on how to stop any future defections after the bold escape of Oh Chong-song on Nov. 13, 2017.

While these mockups could be categorized as part of MOUT training, the largest MOUT base in the country is at Unsal (40.013806° 125.885916°), with the ‘urban’ section of the base covering 16 hectares. The actual MOUT structures have largely remained the same, but the other facilities at the base were expanded in two phases between 2014 and 2020, with the administrative center receiving the most change. As I’ll discuss in some more detail later, a paratrooper jump tower was also erected at the base in 2014.

The large Changdo training complex (38.642975° 127.742591°) includes a MOUT sector that was constructed in 2018-19 as well as a large firing range and areas for tank maneuvers. In 2011 and 2018 a series of 31 new barracks were constructed, allowing at least 1,500 soldiers to train at the base at any given time.

Of the seven largest MOUT facilities, five have experienced some level of renovation or expansion and a sixth may currently be having relevant construction done.

Lastly, dozens of ‘drive-thru’ bunkers have also been constructed in recent years. These bunkers are able to accommodate trucks, armored vehicles, and towed artillery but not TELs. The bunkers vary in size but tend to be 5-6 meters wide and 20-40 meters long. They can be used to protect vehicles during fueling or adding armaments and also provide hardened cover to allow them to fire at a target and then hide to evade detection and counterfire, the so-called shoot-and-scoot tactic.


A map showing the locations of each of the new HARTS and their maximum firing range.

One of the earliest changes that Kim Jong-un saw through was the construction of 126 hardened artillery sites (HARTS). Nearly all of them were built within 10 km of the DMZ. 

Construction work on this massive project began soon before Kim Jong-il’s death, but Kim Jong-un continued the work which extended into 2017. These new HARTS comprise 20.7% of all HARTS in the region and hold between four and six individual guns (the Koksan 170 mm self-propelled gun, and 122 mm, 130 mm, and 152 mm systems are all capable of being used at these sites). The new HARTS can fire artillery 60 km, placing all of Seoul and Inchon in range of tens of thousands of artillery shells an hour.

A number of individual hardened bunkers for multiple rocket launchers were constructed as part of this broader project along the coast of South Hwanghae Province, placing islands near the Northern Limit Line at risk. Most of these MRL bunkers were constructed in 2012 after the 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, with several more built in 2014. It has been reported that Kim Jong-un visited one of the bases from where the shelling originated the day before the attack.


Despite their near obsolescence in the face of modern fighter jets, North Korea has also continued to update its air defenses and to reassess which anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) batteries are still necessary and which ones can be decommissioned.

In the last decade, 19 AAA batteries have been constructed. Additionally, there are two likely surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites currently under construction which, once completed, would bring the total number of active sites to 61. The new SAMs would be capable of supporting North Korea’s newest SAM system, the KN-06 and variants.

While North Korea’s AAA batteries field predominately low-altitude, Soviet-based artillery that can’t threaten most modern fighter craft or bombers, the country has nonetheless constructed 19 new batteries.

The construction of these new sites often coincided with the decommissioning of a number of others, particularly in eastern Pyongyang in 2016-17. And over the last 35 years or so, there have been around 300 total closures of AAA sites across the country. The reasons for removing an AAA site in 1986 or in 2016 could easily be the same given the state of the country’s artillery. Most of the guns are from the 1950s and 60s, there is a lack of ammunition and a lack of replacement parts for the older radar systems.

So, closing redundant sites, especially in the face of modern warfare, makes sense to preserve their limited supply of parts for more important sites. However, the fact at least 19 have been built in just the last decade raises some questions about this commonly held wisdom.

However, what’s more important than adding a few or demolishing a few AAAs has been the development of new radars, new surface-to-air missiles, and other air defenses.

But before I move on to these newer systems, a number of older AAAs have been converted to hardened sites, with the guns hidden within bunkers instead of out in the open or covered by tarps. Additionally, several other sites have had their radars replaced and other features added that may make them capable of being launching sites for rockets and short-range missiles.

As for North Korea’s surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, while most of the soon-to-be 61 active sites still rely on  S-75, S-125, and S-200 systems from decades ago, the country does have the ability to maintain and replace them and they’ve been kept at a higher state of readiness than the shorter range AAAs.

But beginning in 2017, the country started to field its own KN-06 SAM system (largely based on the Russian S-300). Its use of mobile radar instead of the usual fixed emplacements also means that the systems could be deployed at any number of hardened sites and not just at the existing 61 known SAM sites. According to The Drive, the KN-06 radar system “appears to be an indigenous version of the mobile 5N63 "Flap Lid" phased array radar, and likely has capabilities somewhat akin to later versions of the S-300P SAM system…[these] later versions could track 12 and engage six.”

Continuing with air defense, North Korea recently tested a new anti-aircraft missile, with the test “aimed at confirming the practical functionality of the missile's launcher, radar, comprehensive battle command vehicle and combat performance.” More information is still needed but if the test was indeed successful and the missile goes into mass production, it adds another layer of complexity to any future air war over the peninsula.

Lastly, North Korea has tested several new types of multiple rocket launchers including a ‘super-large' MRL (known as the KN-25) in 2019 that has a range of 321 km. Blurring the line between rockets and short-range ballistic missiles, if deployed in sufficient numbers along the DMZ, they could target roughly 90% of South Korean territory and could easily threaten every American base in the country except for the U.S Navy base at Jinhae.


KPA Navy

There were a number of early signs that the KPA Navy was attempting a modernization program (encompassing new weapons and new infrastructure), with Kim Jong-un continuing a number of programs initiated by his father and beginning some of his own.

Outside of the development of submarine-launched ballistic missiles and the Sinpo-C submarine variant (which was discussed in Sharpening the Treasured Sword), North Korea began to show off its latest Nongo class surface effect ships (SES). In development since at least 2002, the first official images of these SES with all of their armaments in place occurred in 2015.

They have been described by ArsTechnica asa high-speed "stealth" ship-killer using a surface effect hull—a combination of catamaran and hovercraft.” The “stealth” comes from a faceted hull shape that lowers its radar reflectivity. While not a true stealth ship, it is an improvement over older vessel designs.

These SES carry four KN-09 anti-ship missiles batteries. According to ArsTechnica, they also carry two AK-630 30mm close-in weapons systems, four machine gun turrets, and a short-range anti-aircraft missile system. Nongo’s have been spotting in Wonsan, Munchon, and Nampo and at least five of them have been identified as of 2021.

The Navy also developed two new frigates capable of carrying helicopters, first launched in 2011-12. According to Joseph Bermudez, these anti-submarine warfare helicopter frigates (FFH) are the largest KPN surface ships developed since 1990 and “may also represent an evolutionary step in the development of naval strategy to include helicopter anti-submarine operations.”

Beginning around 2013, one of the two Najin-class frigates (North Korea’s flagship class) started to undergo a modernization process of its own. The vessel, hull number 631, had several systems replaced throughout 2014 and new ones added including two 30mm automated turrets (based on the Soviet AK-630 CIWS) and eight Kh-35 anti-ship missiles. Other short-range missile systems and newer radars were installed later. This makes the ship the most dangerous traditional warship in the fleet.


The ingenuity of North Korea’s Navy can be summed up in this quote by H. I. Sutton of Covert Shores, “It is a myth that North Korean naval vessels are by definition clones of older Russia or Chinese designs. In fact North Korean naval architects have produced a long string of original designs, often with novel features. They have Semi-Submersibles, catamarans, Surface Effect Ships (SES) and now they have Very Slender Vessels (VSVs).”

VSVs are high-speed, wave-piercing craft. Their wave-piercing nature enables the craft to punch through the waves (instead of riding over them, being buffeted with each one), increasing speed and lowering the physical stresses on the crew in heavier seas. Their design also gives the hull a smaller radar cross-section, although poor weapon layouts and other equipment can negate this benefit.

According to Sutton, North Korea has multiple VSV types ranging from 10 m in length to 32 m and there are at least seven individual craft in their inventory. The first VSV was spotted on Google Earth in 2012 and they are currently stationed at Chongjin, Nampo, and Wonsan.

How the regime plans to utilize this new platform isn’t known, but they are likely to be used as interceptors, patrolling the country’s important fisheries (as implied by their location in Chongjin) and also used to conduct raids into South Korean waters.

Some existing older ships have also begun to be outfitted with more modern radar systems, anti-ship missiles, close-in weapons, and torpedoes.


To facilitate the construction, berthing, and continued maintenance of these new (or improved) ships, a number of naval facilities have also undergone their own modernization program.

One of the construction halls at Nampo was elongated in 2018 and a smaller manufacturing site nearby (38.730751° 125.423457°) underwent considerable renovations and new construction in 2013-14, 2016, and in 2021.

The area north of Munchon is home to the 13th Naval Command which is a collection of at least nineteen units (dispersed in and around Kumya Bay and the Songjon Peninsula) including KPA Navy units 155, 597, and 291. It is home to squadrons of patrol boats, torpedo boats, and hovercraft (at five distinct sites).

The first instances of change here occurred in 2013 when several small barrack buildings were constructed. Work began to speed up in 2015 with numerous older facilities demolished and a large artificial port yard was constructed for Unit 291 through land reclamation, adding over 127,000 sq. m. of land and resurfacing a further 27 hectares around the village of Tapchon-ri.

Additional work was carried out at Unit 597 (39.317336° 127.401134°), a major maintenance and repair yard. Nearly the entire complex was reconstructed between 2015 and 2016 and new buildings were also added.

A one-kilometer road and rail bridge was also constructed from 2015 and 2018, connecting units 291 and 597, better integrating a naval complex that extends for several kilometers across bays and islands.

However, after the initial foundation work and land reclamation at Unit 291 (39.333230° 127.431410°), progress slowed tremendously. Currently, a few foundations have been prepared and 15 piers are under various stages of construction but there has been little substantial work since around 2018.

It was suspected that the work at Unit 291 was to create an east coast HQ for the Navy’s amphibious assault command and its numerous hovercrafts.

This stalled activity is not the only example to be found at a hovercraft facility.

There are several hovercraft bases on both coasts and the country’s fleet is around 130 Kongbang-class hovercraft. These hovercraft are stationed across ten locations with the largest concentration being in six sites in Wonsan Bay (five as part of the Muchon base and one other, north across the bay at Je-do Island).

Despite these existing facilities, Kim Jong-un began constructing three new hovercraft bases, one at San-gol-li in Kangwon and two in South Hwanghae Province at Manghae-dong and Yonbong-ni. Together, these bases would be able to station at least 90 craft and would cut transit time into South Korean waters by half, and could transport over 3,600 troops every few hours. Construction at the largest of these bases, Yongbong-ni began in 2015, followed by San-gol-li in 2016, and Manghae-dong around 2017.

Curiously, after some initial construction work, San-gol-li was abandoned. And then, after continual progress for multiple years, work at Yongbong-ni was likewise halted. Work at the nearby Monghae-dong also came to an end. Currently, all three sites seem to have been abandoned.

The reason(s) for the decision to stop construction work at these three new sites as well as the stalled work at Munchon seems inexplicable, particularly as the primary reasons for constructing them in the first place still remain pertinent. The existing bases are still well maintained and landing exercises are conducted every year, often under the watchful eye of Kim Jong-un, but it seems that the military’s focus has been drawn elsewhere for the time being.


Another major addition to naval infrastructure was the construction of a new submarine training center at Sinpo. The demolition of older structures began in 2009 but the new facility’s construction has taken all of Kim Jong-un’s rule to-date to complete, with the construction of the new buildings primarily happening after 2015. A decade in the making, this facility is suspected to replace a smaller training site at Mayang Island.

The center has two training pools with an escape tower, an academy building, and several apartment buildings for students and staff. The Sinpo facility will be the second of two primary submariner training sites, the other being at Pipa-got naval base on the west coast.

As Dave Schmerler wrote, “With this new site nearing completion, and the release of images showing what is likely to be North Korea’s first deployable ballistic missile submarine, their intentions on expanding their submarine fleet’s capability on their east coast has become much more transparent.”


The development of the Nongo-class SES, the anti-submarine warfare helicopter frigates, and the Najin modernization program have led to a reconsideration of North Korea’s maritime capabilities. While it is still not a blue-water navy, the threat it poses to South Korean ships and its ability to attack both enemy submarines and surface vessels within their territorial waters has improved dramatically compared to the KPA Navy of Kim Jong-Il’s era.


KPA Air Force

Despite North Korea’s “newest” aircraft being variations of Soviet and Chinese models from the 1970s, Kim Jong-un has nonetheless placed greater importance on the air force than Kim Jong-il, particularly when it comes to training the country’s special airborne forces, developing aerial weapon systems that can be indigenously produced (if not new fighter jets), and he also has taken steps to help improve the survivability of aircraft in the event of a crash or other emergency.

Map of highway airstrips.

The AccessDPRK database has 30 identified highway strips. These are straight, level stretches of road (sometimes paved, sometimes not) that can be used as an emergency runway for any number of reasons. Some are geared toward use by small An-2 biplanes and others can accommodate fighter jets.

These highway strips are nothing new to North Korea, but Kim Jong-un decided to make them more useful by adding parking revetments to 29 of them. These revetments are protected by earthen berms and are typically located a hundred or so meters away from the highway to allow the road to still be used as a runway while the other aircraft are being parked.

I have identified a total of 71 individual revetments. Depending on the type of aircraft, these can accommodate anywhere from 142 to 213 aircraft combined. The main period of revetment construction occurred in 2016-17.

Two grass landing strips also had revetments added and a new landing strip was constructed near Chongjin in 2016 (41.802706° 129.854602°).

As part of the attempt to improve the survivability of aircraft during an overshoot or crash (poor maintenance and a lack of spare parts in the air force is a notorious problem), 19 major airbases had “arrester beds” constructed between 2015 and 2016.

In other countries, these beds are made up of “engineered materials”, often special concrete pads that are lightweight and can crush easily, absorbing energy and slowing down the aircraft. But in North Korea, they appear to be made up of sand beds. Though more effective than nothing, their installation highlights the struggle of trying to provide better safety while lacking the capacity to do so in substantive technical ways.

As with infantry training, the training of paratroopers and airborne special operations forces has been substantially increased. North Korea currently has ten parachute jump towers (which are used to train recruits how to use a parachute from various heights as part of their basic training before jumping from an aircraft), of those, four were constructed under Kim Jong-un with a further two being renovated.

Two of the new towers, in Pyongsan and Unsal, were constructed within large urban warfare training centers which underscores North Korea’s primary offensive strategy, that is to rely on special operations activities to disrupt South Korean military movements and slow any US counterattack by sending waves of soldiers behind enemy lines.

A third tower was constructed at the Changdo training complex in 2014. As noted in the KPA Army section, this base is capable of training at least 1,500 soldiers at any given time and provides a wide range of training exercises. The tower was built several months after the base itself underwent a major renovation.

The fourth tower built under Kim is at a remote site near Sonchon (39.823569° 124.918211°). The steel lattice tower was erected sometime between 2014 and 2017 and is a small, stand-alone training site that isn’t part of any larger complex. 


A number of additions and renovations have also been noted at the Panghyon Aircraft Plant which is North Korea’s most important aircraft manufacturing center.

And, wrapping up the infrastructure changes, even the KPA Air Force’s headquarters in Chunghwa (38.868645° 125.804992°) has seen some substantial additions over the years. From the ‘Air Defense and Combat Command’, over 110,000 personnel, 1,700 aircraft, and 37 key bases (along with many smaller ones) are overseen.

The first noted change under Kim Jong-un was the construction of a new gym from 2012-13 as well as a possible ‘revolutionary history’ museum. Then in 2016 the northern end of the base saw substantial construction activity with three multi-floor dorms, an assembly hall, and another large building all being added. Another unidentified building was constructed at the same time in the center of the base.


Kim has repeatedly called for the “scientific and strategic enhancement” of the air force. In the absence of new fighter jets, bombers, modern avionics, or the ability to acquire those things, this has been taken to mean that the air force needs to develop ways to deliver nuclear weapons and to come up with other weapon systems that can be produced within the country. 

To ensure a greater warfighting capacity, Kim has begun to outfit his fleet of 300 An-2 biplanes (which would be used to fly low, evading radar, and deploy paratroopers and supplies behind the front lines) with satellite navigation aids and even air-to-surface munitions.

As conflict specialist Sebastien Roblin wrote, “Surging dozens or hundreds of difficult-to-detect An-2s could easily overwhelm the air defenses on the DMZ”. To further assist in making them difficult to detect, the color scheme of the An-2s was changed in 2014 to lighter colors and countershaded, making them visually blend into the sky or ground, depending on the adversary’s perspective.

Although North Korea can domestically produce much of what the Army and Special Rocket Forces now require, their ability to develop and produce new aircraft has been a major shortfall in their capabilities. In the absence of new generations of aircraft, North Korea will have to rely on upgrading its fleet with improved sensors and electronic warfare systems as well as building up a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles to do everything from reconnaissance to conducting kamikaze attacks.

There is only limited information about North Korea’s development of new electronics, but there is plenty of evidence they are taking drone warfare seriously.

The potential value of drones as force multipliers and providing targeting data has been demonstrated in Syria, the recent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and by terror groups such as ISIS and the Houthis in Yemen. The asymmetric nature of drone warfare and their low cost also fits well within North Korea’s military doctrine. 

In support of their UAV goals, there is a facility at 39.128763° 125.471549° (on the Tokjwa Reservoir) that appears to be a UAV testing base. It was first noted by Nathan J. Hunt last year. The site was constructed in 2019 and includes a short runway, less than 100 meters long, a hangar, and either a previously unseen UAV model or a scale model of another type of aircraft. Further base construction also began this year. If this is a UAV base, it would be the only stand-alone drone development facility known in the public domain, that is, that wasn’t part of a factory or airbase.

Several North Korean reconnaissance drones have been spotted in South Korean territory, particularly since 2014, and the government has discussed the need to mass produce UAVs on more than one occasion. Current estimates for North Korea’s UAV inventory vary considerably but fall between 300 and 1,000 drones.

Growing Your Own

One other area that I would like to talk about is the military’s requirement to grow as much food for itself as possible.

This requirement was ordered by Kim Jong-il as a result of the famine, but ongoing food shortages has meant that the state still cannot provide enough rations to feed its own soldiers. Stories of soldiers going out and stealing from civilians still pop up, so it’s little wonder that the very look of many bases and even industrial sites has changed.

Much of this change can be charted through the last decade. Despite genuine improvements in the country’s food security under Kim Jong-un, the military still needs to grow its own food and is also required to grow specialty crops that can be sold to external markets to earn foreign currency for the regime.

KPA owned farms can be massive, like KPA Farm No. 1116 which has 368 hectares under cultivation. The farm also grows mushrooms that are sold abroad, earning money for the state. Underscoring the importance of this military farm, Kim Jong-un has visited it nearly every year since 2013.

But it's not just military-controlled, agricultural-specific sites that are involved in the farming business.

The nuclear test site at Punggye-ri extends for 17 km down the Namdae River valley. In multiple places, small farms can be seen comprising dozens of hectares under cultivation to support the needs of Punggye-ri’s personnel. This activity has continued despite the complex being “closed”.

The former high explosives test site at Yongbyon was converted into a garden in 2003 and a series of greenhouses were added nearby in 2013. Additional greenhouses and cultivated fields can be spotted throughout the walled compounds within Yongbyon, including greenhouses built in 2014 within the Radiochemistry Laboratory where spent fuel rods are reprocessed.

As for North Korea’s current high explosives test site at Yongdeok (40.002399° 125.339812°), a well-defined garden was added in 2019 and occupies 18,300 sq. m. Facilities at Yongdeok’s fish farm have also been improved in recent years.

These gardens and fields can be found at most KPA bases and even at air defense sites like surface-to-air missile batteries. Some examples of this can be seen at the Majon-ri base (39.122529° 127.128347°) in Kangwon Province where the housing units each have small garden plots while other parts of the base contain collective farms. And at this (38.406613° 127.359467°) unnamed base near the DMZ, a greenhouse was built in 2019/20 next to the munitions depot.

It’s not only things like rice or mushrooms that are being grown. Military-owned livestock facilities, fisheries and fish farms have proliferated. One of the largest is the Singchang Fish Farm which breeds sturgeon. It is operated by KPA Unit 810, the same unit that operates KPA Farm No. 1116 in Pyongyang. Kim Jong-un has visited the site multiple times and in 2019 several of the ponds were extensively modified.

Inland fish farming is but one part of a large KPA fishing industry that also involves the military owning fleets of small fishing vessels. As discussed in the 2020 report Fish, Fishing and Community in North Korea and Neighbours, “In recent years, the fishing infrastructures and desires of North Korea’s central government have picked up again, and fishing has been reorganised into the institutional frameworks of the Korean People’s Army.”

Sadly, some of these vessels end up as “ghost ships” wandering into Japanese waters with a dead or missing crew.

Under Kim Jong-un, fields have become more organized, greenhouses have been added to improve yields and diversify the types of plants that can be grown, and attempts to earn illicit currency through military-controlled trade networks have continued.



In short, Kim has been trying to make the most of a bad situation.

The obstacles are enormous, from problems with the fitness of its manpower pool to a lack of modern technology and an inability to manufacture certain equipment and parts domestically, Kim has therefore been forced to redirect resources toward enhancing special operations forces training, building a better capacity to infiltrate targets and to engage in non-kinetic warfare through cyber (something not covered in this report), as well as attempt to improve the survivability of KPA forces via safety measures at airfields and constructing hardened facilities.

Although nuclear weapons guarantee regime survival, their use would also guarantee its end. To that end, North Korea needs a credible conventional deterrent as well to show that the price of even minor military action against Pyongyang could still result in overwhelming casualties, even if a nuclear bomb is never dropped.


Naturally, questions surround the ability of DPRK armed forces to adequately train its forces, particularly in the use of newer weapons that have been developed (such as semi-automatic grenade launchers, tank destroyers, and various multiple rocket launchers). As Liang Tuang Nah pointed out in The Diplomat, the bulk of training that gets shown to the world through official media consists of troops and equipment engaged in mass-firing exercises and air shows that look more like a performance than integrated training among the various branches or in ways applicable to real-world combat in the 21st century.

However, the country isn’t spending 25-30% of its GDP just on nuclear weapons and shooting off ancient ammunition. The massive build-up of training facilities includes opportunities for individual units to learn tank warfare, fire any number of artillery and rocket systems, and improve each individual soldier’s skill.

The hills of North Korea are pockmarked with chalk targets for aerial bombardment and ground-based artillery. Even whole islands have been designated for artillery practice. Although it is not possible to monitor all of the activities that occur by using commercial satellite imagery and while changes to doctrine, strategy, and interservice cooperation can only be glimpsed at through Pyongyang’s publications, the physical evidence is still there to inform us. And it’s telling us that Kim Jong-un has not created a paper tiger.

New weapons, improved training, and creative ways to finance North Korea’s conventional forces have created a qualitatively better armed service than in years past. Clearly, military parity with South Korea is a pipe dream on the technological front, but an army doesn’t have to be equal on paper to pose a real threat on the field. And even North Korea’s alleged inability to wage a long-term (6 months+) full-scale conflict due to a lack of fuel, food, and parts, drug lords in Mexico to terrorists in Afghanistan have shown that a prolonged conflict can be still carried out in the face of overwhelming odds.

Indeed, the Syrian Civil War and the recent 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have demonstrated that through the use of non-traditional strategies, electronic warfare, and through the targeted use of UAVs, that strategically significant actions can be effected.

By focusing on special operations, asymmetric capabilities, and cyber operations, Kim Jong-un is working to level the playing field. Again, the goal is not the KPA facing down South Korea in 20th century-style set-piece battles. The best-case goal is to deter and if that doesn’t work, to inflict as much damage as possible while prolonging the conflict until a set of key goals are accomplished (namely the capture of Seoul and delaying a US counterattack) so that a new “peace” can be settled on terms favorable to Pyongyang.

Kim is still a long, long way off, but the military (particularly the Army) is nonetheless better positioned now than it has been in a decade, both in terms of real power and in its ability to leverage threats to gain economic and political benefits.

~ ~ ~ ~

I have scheduled this project to run through to the end of the year, with a new article coming out roughly every 10 days or so. If you would like to support the project and help me with research costs, please consider supporting AccessDPRK on Patreon. Those supporters donating $15 or more each month will be entitled to a final PDF version of all the articles together that will also have additional information included once the series is finished. They will also receive a Google Earth map related to the events in the series, and can get access to the underlying data behind the supplemental reports.

Supporters at other levels will be sent each new article a day before it’s published and will also receive a mention as seen below.


I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Amanda O., GreatPoppo, Joel Parish, John Pike, Kbechs87, Rinmanah, Russ Johnson, and ZS.

--Jacob Bogle, 10/31/2021

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Kim Jong-un's First Decade in Power - Sharpening the Treasured Sword

Under Kim Jong-un, the country’s nuclear program has been described by government spokesmen as "an all-powerful treasured sword for preventing a war and reliably protecting peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula". Although it was Kim Jong-il who turned the development of nuclear weapons into a central focus of the regime and who oversaw its first nuclear tests, North Korea could only truly be called a fully-fledged nuclear power under Kim Jong-un, with continual demonstrations making politically motivated denials of their progress moot.

A nuclear-capable, short-range ballistic missile being fired from a railcar on Sept. 15, 2021, near Yangdok, North Korea. Image via: KCNA.

Part III - Sharpening the Treasured Sword


Possessing nuclear weapons had been a gleam in Kim Il-sung’s eye since the disaster of the Korean War. While he was able to declare “victory”, in that the north remained under his control, the war killed at least 2 million civilians, destroyed 75% or more of all standing structures, and wrecked the country’s infrastructure.

While North Korea’s ideological goal has always been the reunification of the peninsula on their own terms, regime survival has been the pragmatic goal for decades. And key to preventing a repeat of the highly lopsided destruction the war wrought has been the development of nuclear weapons, particularly since the DPRK hasn’t had conventional military parity with South Korea since the late 1960s.

The development of nuclear weapons has been a regime promise for decades and the people realize that their material standards of living have suffered for this ultimate guarantee of survival. The existence of the modern North Korean state, it seems, is now tied to having these bombs. But not just for direct military reasons.

An integral part to North Korea’s strategy to reunify and to survive includes keeping the United States as an eternal enemy while also attempting to drive a wedge between the US and South Korea. In doing this, the North can continue walking a fine line with provocations, shaking down international aid at the same time. This not only helps the regime survive in practical terms but threatens to weaken popular support amongst South Koreans for the US-ROK alliance.

Even while no South Korean or American has died from a northern nuke, North Korea has nonetheless managed to extract substantial concessions over the years amounting to billions in financial aid and millions of tons worth of food. From Pyongyang’s perspective, nuclear threats have turned into good business both domestically and internationally. Giving them up without substantial agreements by the United States might, in the eyes of the people, be viewed as a national betrayal on the part of the regime itself and could lead to its own collapse.

As such, one of Kim Jong-un’s top responsibilities since coming to power has been to fulfill the promise of turning North Korea into a genuine nuclear power all while holding off the international forces that would seek to stop him.


A Brief History

Kim Il-sung embarked on developing nuclear weapons with the establishment of the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center in the early 1960s, but progress was slow. And as the world changed and the Cold War ended, he seemed to be genuinely willing to give up the nuclear program in exchange for peace and better relationships with western countries. Unfortunately, his proposed meeting with US president Bill Clinton over the issues of denuclearization, civilian nuclear energy, and food aid never materialized as Kim died in 1994.

Kim Jong-il, facing tremendous internal challenges from an impending famine and needing to bolster his image as the new leader, quickly set aside his father’s ideas for total denuclearization while still paying homage as the dutiful son to Kim Il-sung’s “dying wish”.

Even though it was Kim Jong-il who signed the Agreed Framework, there is little indication that he intended to abide by it. The regime took every opportunity to present it to their own people as an “abject surrender” of the imperialists in the face of the DPRK’s might. Any rewards Pyongyang reaped were couched in terms of war reparations.

And anytime the West was perceived to not act in good faith, Pyongyang used that as an excuse to further erode the agreement. It wasn’t long before covert nuclear activities were underway once more (by 1998) and the agreement effectively collapsed in 2003.

The decision to pursue nuclear weapons regardless of diplomatic overtures was made more urgent as the lasting effects of the Gulf War became clear.

Saddam Hussein was forced to officially end Iraq’s nuclear program after his defeat; however, the fact his military was soundly defeated and his WMD programs were dismantled wasn’t enough to stop the deaths of countless thousands as a result of sanctions. This weakened his regime even further.  

The subsequent War on Terror and Saddam’s execution in 2003, followed by the Arab Spring and Libyan Revolution (Muammar Gaddafi, too, agreed to give up his nuclear program) all taught Pyongyang a very specific lesson: no nukes equals death.

The years of Kim Jong-il’s rule saw numerous advancements not only in the development of nuclear warheads but also in their delivery systems like intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Jong-il conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, and although the international community condemned the tests, called for denuclearization, and issued round after round of sanctions, Pyongyang felt it was on to something that the world was simply not willing to go war over and risk the fallout to – an active war that could easily involve a nuclear device landing on Seoul.

However, despite all of the progress toward the bomb and despite the privations of the people, North Korea was not able to become a true nuclear power under Kim Jong-il. It still lacked nuclear devices that were powerful enough to take out major cities, the ability to mass produce such devices, and it lacked the delivery systems needed to hold the United States directly under threat.

And though North Korea was undoubtedly making progress, it came in fits and starts. Seemingly free to proceed even further (by threatening to raise the human costs to unacceptable levels), Kim Jong-un would prove to be more than capable of taking what already existed and realize decades of nuclear ambition.


Early Failure, Early Success

After Kim Jong-il’s death in 2011, Kim Jong-un inherited the nuclear project and decided to expend every effort to sharpen the sword into something that would ensure no foreign army would ever again march through Pyongyang and would finally make good on decades of promises and propaganda.

While Pyongyang’s last public actions in 2011 regarding their nuclear program was to reach out diplomatically and call for resumed Six Party talks in exchange for a moratorium on future nuclear tests and long-range missile tests, and despite coming to a 'Leap Day' deal on February 29, 2012 for North Korea to invite IAEA inspectors to observe the suspension of uranium enrichment at Yongbyon, the decision to launch a satellite into space had already been made.

On April 13, 2012, North Korea attempted to launch a satellite into space from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, using the Unha-3 Rocket which was based on Nodong and Musudan (BM-25) missile technology. While the launch failed, the attempt was certainly a violation in spirit, if not the letter, of the ‘Leap Day’ deal that had been agreed to just two weeks prior. It was also a clear demonstration of Pyongyang’s desire to become one of the space-faring nations of the world, a desire voiced by Kim Il-sung in 1993.

In one of Kim Jong-un’s first major successes, a second attempt was made on December 12, and a small satellite (the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Unit 2) was placed in orbit. Contact with the satellite was soon lost and its ultimate fate is still not known, but orbit was nonetheless achieved. This not only fulfilled the first major step of Kim Il-sung’s wish but it was done before South Korea placed their own satellite in orbit on Jan. 30, 2013, giving the younger Kim a propaganda boost.

Although ballistic technology is a requirement for peaceful space exploration, North Korea has not hidden its ulterior motives. The video of the December 12 launch was later used in a propaganda film declaring “raise higher a nuclear sword of Juche”. The ability to use space technology as a cover or as a technology demonstrator for future military technology has a long history and should not be underestimated, particularly as North Korea’s two space facilities (Sohae and Tonghae) have long been part of testing rocket engines and firing missiles.

As Ankit Panda wrote for The Diplomat in 2016 of the mood after the ‘Leap Day’ deal had been agreed to, “At the time, observers of North Korea suggested that Kim Jong-un’s willingness to enter talks with the United States “[augured] well .. for Kim Jong Un’s foreign-policy smarts.” Even if that were true at the time, that line of reasoning didn’t consider Kim’s domestic policy smarts.”

The two satellite launches and subsequent events in 2013 Panda went on to say, “underlined Kim’s bid to earn legitimacy in front of the North Korean leadership’s old guard”.

As is so often the case, reporting and volumes of analysis tend to focus on North Korea’s outward-facing message and rarely take into consideration the internal message and how things play out within the marble halls of Pyongyang. It is this internal message, the instructions and propaganda aimed at the soldiers and scientists, and not foreign observers, that provides a much more reliable guide to what (and why) Kim does what he does.

Only a few months after the December 12 satellite launch, the world would come to realize what Kim’s real focus was on.

Race to Thermonuclear

Kim Jong-un examining the two-stage core of an apparent thermonuclear bomb nicknamed “the peanut” by the international media. This device (or one like it) was tested on Sept. 3, 2017 and was North Korea’s largest nuclear test to-date. Image via KCNA.

Kim Jong-il’s Songun policy was the Workers’ Party giving primacy to the military regarding the economy as both nuclear and conventional arms were pursued. The people’s standard of living would have to wait as the country faced “unprecedented” threats from without.

On March 31, 2013, Kim Jong-un set Songun aside in favor of a modified “strategic line” that was first put forth by Kim Il-sung in 1962: Byungjin.

Jong-un’s version of Byungjin (parallel development) insists on the development of a nuclear deterrent without sacrificing the domestic economy and things like living standards.

This shift in policy came after Kim Jong-un’s first nuclear test on Feb. 12, 2013. The test took place at the South Tunnel of the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site beneath Mount Mantap and resulted in an estimated yield between 12 and 16 kt, making it the largest test up to that time; roughly the same explosive yield as the Little Boy bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. The symbolic milestone must not have been missed by Kim and the nuclear engineers and technicians who were directly responsible for the test.

In response, the United Nations Security Councill passed Resolution 2094 which demanded an end to future testing and tightened the sanctions regimes in place against North Korea.

More than simply testing out old designs or trying to blow up larger and larger quantities of a limited stockpile of highly enriched uranium, Kim Jong-un recognized that he needed to give special treatment to the thousands of scientists, engineers, and others who were involved at all levels in Pyongyang’s nuclear program in order to better incentivize personnel toward making greater technological progress.

Propaganda was effuse with praise for these atomic warriors. Students proclaimed that their sole desire was to help build the country’s nuclear force and rewards (including housing) were handed out to those involved after each test.

Kim had also reorganized the Missile Guidance Bureau in 2012 into the Strategic Rocket Force. This branch of the military is ultimately responsible for not only missiles but for the country’s nuclear arsenal itself. Now, the SRF sat with pride of place among the other branches of the Korean Peoples’ Army.

Through this restructuring and reallocation of resources, Pyongyang was able to better focus on the technical needs required. Even moderate improvements in efficiency can lead to seemingly miraculous results, as history shows with Germany’s armaments industry during WWII despite the huge inefficiencies inherent to the Third Reich.

But the 2013 device was still a small bomb and only showcased well-known and fairly basic nuclear weapons technology. Kim needed something bigger and something that would demonstrate the North’s technical ability with even more complex weapons.

On March 30, 2014, North Korea announced plans to test a “new form” of nuclear bomb which analysts believed could have meant either a miniaturized nuclear device that could be fitted onto a missile or a thermonuclear (hydrogen) bomb. Later in October, US General Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of ROK-US Combined Forces Command said, despite a lack of new testing that, “I believe they have the capability to miniaturize a device at this point and they have the technology to potentially deliver what they say they have”. This concern was later echoed by other members of US national defense.

After nearly two years since Pyongyang’s announcement that it would test another nuclear device, seismic activity was detected at the Punggye-ri site on Jan. 6, 2016. The bomb had an estimated yield between 7-10kt, and contrary to North Korea’s claim that it was a hydrogen bomb (an assessment most outside experts disagree with), it was more likely a boosted fission device.

Though not having the same yield as the 2013 test, the technology required for these boosted weapons produces bombs of a smaller size, placing North Korea nonetheless one step closer to having a miniaturized, mountable warhead.

Following the January test, at the Seventh Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party in March, the government pronounced that it would never use nuclear weapons “unless its sovereignty is encroached upon by any aggressive hostile forces with nukes". While many doubt such seemingly peaceful statements coming out of Pyongyang, North Korea has long held that it would give up its own nuclear weapons as part of a global denuclearization program. And given the realities of a nuclear war (or even a full-scale conventional war) on the peninsula, there’s little reason to actually doubt Pyongyang’s assertions about its desire for global denuclearization or doubt that it would never use them offensively unless it sensed an imminent existential threat (such as a ‘decapitation strike’ from the US or South Korea).

Indeed, Kim Jong-un said at the 2021 arms exhibition that “war itself” was the country’s primary enemy. As clichéd as that might sound, as well as contradictory to their previous actions, the only way for the Kim regime to survive in the long-term is to avoid war at all costs. While there is considerable debate around these issues, Korean studies specialist Andrei Lankov has said of it, “showing off kinetic capabilities while also signaling openness to dialogue are not contradictory at all for the North Koreans. The regime is run by people who are masters of survival. And their goal is to nudge the U.S. toward relieving sanctions while working to ensure the election of a pro-engagement president in the South.”

And so, North Korea will continue their cycle of “showing off” followed by attempts at engagement, as they did back on Sept. 9, 2016.

Amongst a flurry of threats and condemnations between nations and on the 68th anniversary of the founding of North Korea, the Sept. 9 test had a yield ranging between 20 and 25 kt, overtaking the 2013 test as their largest one to-date. In their announcement after the test North Korea claimed that it was now able to produce "at will, and as many as it wants, a variety of smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear warheads of higher strike power".

Although North Korea has always had a penchant for exaggeration and claiming success when there was none, governments around the world seemed to have agreed with spirit of the announcement, with then U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper saying in October 2016, "I think the notion of getting the North Koreans to denuclearize is probably a lost cause. That is their ticket to their survival." Clapper went on to say that the US military had already ascribed to North Korea the ability to produce and mount a warhead onto a missile and hit US territory.

Less than a year later, on August 8, 2017, a leaked report from the Defense Intelligence Agency showed that the agency had assessed back in July that North Korea had indeed achieved the capability to miniaturize a warhead and hit the US mainland. The CIA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence also agreed with the DIA’s assessment.

In an ever-declining environment for peace (from Trump’s “fire and fury” to the THAAD missile defense system becoming operational in South Korea) and with Pyongyang’s adversaries agreeing that they were a nuclear power, Kim Jong-un had one more test in mind.

Multiple reports from 38 North showed various levels of activity in 2017 at the Punggye-ri test site, suggesting preparations were being made for a future test. These were followed by media stories out of South Korea in August claiming South Korea’s National Intelligence Agency had reported that North Korea "has completed its preparation to carry out a nuclear test at Tunnel 2 and Tunnel 3 of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site.”

Then, on Sept. 3, 2017, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake was detected in the vicinity of Punggye-ri just after noon local time. Further monitoring detected a second smaller quake a little later.

The North Korean announcement said that the country had just tested a variable-yield thermonuclear device and that the design would enable mass production of the warheads.

Although previous claims of North Korean hydrogen bombs had generally been dismissed, the size and other signatures of this test had led to many analysts concluding that it actually could have been a hydrogen bomb and no intelligence agency from the US, Russia, China, France, or the UK have come out and contradicted the reporting (although they haven’t validated it, either).

The bomb’s lower estimated yield was 50 kt with a theoretical maximum of 260 kt based on measurements made using synthetic aperture radar information. Since the bomb’s yield can’t be verified, seismic data is key to understanding its size and what type of bomb it was. In any event, the test was so large it noticeably damaged Mt. Mantap and destroyed the viability of the North Test Portal (tunnel) to conduct any future tests without risking the explosion breaking out into the environment.

The 2017 test turned out to be North Korea’s final (to-date) nuclear test, but it proved to be at least 10 times the size as any of their other tests and may well have been a thermonuclear bomb. This substantial advancement could have led to a military strike against the country by the United States. Such an eventuality was even publicly discussed prior to the test, but the lack of solid information regarding the location of their missile launchers precluded such an attack in the end because the US couldn’t guarantee it could target all of the relevant sites and prevent North Korea from launching a nuclear attack.

Indeed, this cluster of nuclear tests, it must be said, was occurring during some of the most active missile testing years in North Korea’s history. In 2016 and 2017 there were twenty-eight separate launches of everything from short-range ballistic missiles to tests for the development of submarine launched ballistic missiles. All of which are theoretically nuclear-capable.

In 2018 Kim Jong-un issued a voluntary moratorium on future nuclear testing, saying the country had achieved its nuclear goals.

While some questions remain about North Korea’s ability to actually hit the US mainland in practice (do they really have a viable reentry vehicle for the warhead?), North Korea seems to have little additional need for nuclear testing. Having achieved miniaturization, their weapons’ infrastructure could move on to producing a larger arsenal from established warhead designs and developing new and improved delivery methods.

A view that I subscribe to is that there haven’t been subsequent nuclear tests exactly because North Korea was able to develop a sufficiently small but powerful warhead capable of being mass-produced and mounted on a missile, and not necessarily because of international pressures or even because of damage to the testing site. In other words, they accomplished what they were seeking, they weren’t “stopped”.

Reviewing the North’s armaments industry seems to support that view.


Atomic & Missile Infrastructure

Before any testing can occur, you need the uranium, plutonium, and scores of other components to make a bomb. You also need a place to test.

Much of the infrastructure need had been put in place long before Kim Jong-un came to power, but he has not merely taken advantage of what existed, he has undertaken fairly large modernization programs at many of the associated facilities.

    Yongbyon has been North Korea’s primary uranium enrichment facility since its inception. It is also responsible for the production of plutonium and needed radioisotopes (including for legitimate medical procedures I should add). But production has never been as simple as turning on a switch and letting things run. There have been many times that the various production facilities have been shut down for one reason or another ranging from diplomatic overtures to performing maintenance. This makes it difficult for outside analysts to monitor the activities of the center, leading to the occasional need to examine almost imperceptible puffs of steam and small drips of water from drainage pipes to determine whether or not a site is active or on hiatus.

What can be said for certain, however, is that during Kim Jong-un’s reign, there have been many changes to Yongbyon and to the closed city that houses its workers.

From 2014-2020 at least 21 new apartment blocks have been built or are under construction. This suggests a large influx of new residents to work at the various laboratories and production facilities at Yongbyon. Several additions to the laboratories in the center’s administrative area have also been noted.

Additionally, a chemical facility was added to the Uranium Fuel Fabrication Complex and most recently, new construction work has been observed next to the uranium enrichment centrifuge halls.

    Kangson is a suspected uranium enrichment site. While there is still some disagreement within the open-source community about its purpose, if it is indeed a uranium enrichment site, it would be the second one known to outside sources.

In any event, there is near universal agreement that it plays a role in North Korea’s nuclear program either as an enrichment facility or a factory manufacturing related components.

First built in the early 2000s, activity has been noted throughout Kim Jong-un’s rule, with the International Atomic Energy Agency saying in June 2021 that indications of activity at Kangson were “ongoing”. With Yongbyon’s highly visible nature and aging infrastructure, having a second enrichment site makes perfect sense. As does decentralizing the manufacturing of parts needed for enrichment like centrifuges. Whatever Kangson’s real purpose is in supporting the North’s nuclear ambitions, the facility has certainly not been one of the ones neglected by the regime.

    Pyongsan is North Korea’s primary uranium mining and milling plant, where uranium ore (coming from nearby coal sources) is converted into what’s commonly called yellowcake before it is sent to either Yongbyon or Kangson.

From 2013-15, a refurbishment program was underway to make repairs and to expand Pyongsan’s capacity. And while activity at the plant had been sporadic in the past, Google Earth provides a steady stream of images each year since 2011 and those reveal a constantly growing waste material reservoir. Since 2011, the portion of waste material that is visible above the waterline has grown from 53,370 sq. m to over 126,500 sq. m. as of March 4, 2021, indicating the uranium extraction process has largely been continual in recent years. The pollution associated with this has also caused concern in South Korea over fears of water contamination.

Further construction work occurred in 2017/18 and throughout the typhoons of 2020 and 2021 as minor repairs were made.

Monitoring the mining activities that’s providing the uranium ore to be sent to the plant has also revealed that North Korea hasn’t simply been processing older, existing stock but has actively been acquiring more ore.

Location of the portals (tunnels) at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site and their conjectured configurations. Image from Google Earth/38 North. Used with permission.

    Punggye-ri is North Korea’s only nuclear testing site. Built around Mt. Mantap, it consists of several areas of administration and support facilities which all converge at the base of the mountain where four portals (tunnels) have been excavated. The North and East portals have been used for nuclear testing, with the 2017 test possibly causing irreparable damage to the North portal and the above rock. However, the West and South portals have never been used and are located far enough away from the others that their structure could be stable enough for future tests.

As part of Kim Jong-un’s voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing announced in April 2018, he also offered to destroy Punggye-ri. However, what international journalists were shown was nothing more than the tunnel entrances being blown up. There is no evidence that the tunnels themselves were destroyed.

David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security has said that the other tunnels are still capable of conducting future nuclear tests and that the facility could be reactivated in just a few weeks’ notice; a conclusion many others have echoed.

Adding substantial evidence to this is the fact that none of the facility’s support structures outside of the immediate testing area were demolished. Punggye-ri extends for 17 km and the primary entrance area remains fully intact as does the train station connecting the base the country’s rail system. Additionally, agricultural and other activities have been noted by multiple sources over the years (AccessDPRK, CSIS and 38 North). Agricultural activities are common to all military sites, with the produce being used to feed base personnel or sold to earn currency, and this indicates a continual human presence at Punggye-ri.

If Punggye-ri were irreversibly disabled (as with decommissioned nuclear sites around the world), we would expect that the majority of onsite buildings would be demolished and that other activities would cease. As such, it remains in caretaker status and could be reactivated at Kim’s command.

    Yongdeok is a secretive location near the city of Kusong where North Korea conducts research and development on the explosive lenses needed for most nuclear weapons to operate. It is also the primary candidate location for where the country’s warheads are stored.

Under Kim Jong-un, a new food production site was built to improve supplies to the facility’s personnel, a key tunnel entrance was later disguised, over a dozen additional housing units have been added to the administrative area, and various other buildings have been constructed at the main R&D section of the complex.

When you consider all of the additions to Yongbyon and Yongdeok, and all of the ongoing work at Pyongsan and Kangson, one can only draw a single conclusion. Despite the lack of a nuclear tests since 2017, their nuclear program has only been expanding.


The second part of having a nuclear deterrent is gaining the ability to get your bomb to a target. There are scores of factories, research centers, testing facilities, and missile bases in North Korea, I’d like to take a moment to discuss some of the major industrial and testing sites and how they have changed under Kim Jong-un.

Beginning in 2011 and carried out for several years under Kim Jong-un, numerous expansions and improvements have been made to the Second Academy of Natural Sciences complex (also known as the Sanum-dong Research Center) in northern Pyongyang. This sprawling facility is a central site for North Korea’s missile program and is involved in everything from designing missiles to assembling them. It is also suspected of being the development center for North Korea’s newest cruise missile that was tested in 2021 (more on the test later).

Improvements to the complex include the addition of a new central fabrication hall, a much-enlarged monument plaza that underscores the site’s importance, and in 2018 an unidentified building was constructed that’s approximately 95 by 75 meters in size.

Another key facility is the March 16 Factory in Pyongsong. Involved in the manufacturing of mobile launch vehicles, the factory received a new manufacturing hall between 2012-2013 and another one was added in 2019. Two other buildings were constructed in 2020. The factory has been connected to the production of a modified Hwasong-15 transporter erector launcher (TEL) and Kim Jong-un is known to have visited the factory multiple times.

TELs require specialized tires and the Amnokgang Tire Factory in Manpo is one of the production facilities for the tires. It was explicitly mentioned by Kim Jong-un as responsible for making the tires for the 9-axle TEL of the Hwasong-15 that was tested on Nov 28, 2017. Nearly the entire factory complex was refurbished from 2017 to 2019.

The last industrial site I want to talk about is the Chemical Materials Institute in Hamhung. Once a relatively small facility involved in the production of engine nozzles, reentry vehicle tips, missile airframes, and other components, the facility was dramatically enlarged in 2018 (under the direct guidance of Kim Jong-un) with new production halls, research buildings, and multiple apartment blocks for its new workers.

The expansion of the facility gave North Korea a much greater capacity to produce missiles and sits within a network of missile-related facilities that are all located around Hamgung including the No. 17 Factory that produces solid rocket propellent and the Mangun-po Rocket Motor Test site. It is worth noting that according to reporting by Jeffrey Lewis and Dave Schmerler, the majority of new construction at CMI occurred after the joint April 2018 Panmunjom Declaration in which North and South Korea agreed to carry out disarmament and “cease all hostile acts against each other in every domain”.

As for the nearby Mangun-po Rocket Motor Test Site, it was constructed in 2013 and is North Korea’s primary solid-fuel rocket motor testing facility. The first test happened in March 2016 which was overseen by Kim Jong-un. The development of solid-fuel missiles is an important step toward making North Korea’s missile force more maneuverable and survivable as they take much less time to prepare for launch and can be driven across more difficult terrain.

Other tests are likely to have happened since, but the most recent indications is that a test may have occurred in September 2021. The medium-range Pukkuksong-2 and the recently developed cruise missile both use solid-fuel propellant and are capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

The other permanent test stands that North Korea had during Kim Jong-il’s rule, at Sohae and Chamjin, were likewise maintained, with Chamjin receiving upgrades in 2016. Chamjin was responsible for testing the reentry vehicle nose cone of the KN-08 (Hwasong-13) the following year.

However, Kim Jong-un needed more than these older sites. In 2013-14 he had a test stand constructed at the Sinpo South Shipyard for testing engines and canisters in support of the submarine launched ballistic missile program and a test stand at the January 18th Factory was recently discovered.

Almost nothing is known about this new test stand other than that construction began in 2014, but the January 18th Factory is known to be involved in missile parts production and has a large underground facility. And we know that the factory and its environs underwent renovations in 2011-12 and again from 2014-17.  

Lastly, and for the purpose of brevity, I’ll just say that nearly all known ballistic missile bases have undergone some level of modernization and further development under Kim Jong-un. From new support/maintenance buildings to even the construction of an entirely new base, Kim has invested heavily in modernizing the roughly 20 missile bases in the country.


Carrying Higher the Treasured Sword

This chart by the Center for Strategic and International Studies shows North Korea’s missile testing by year since its first one in 1984. The chart goes to June 9, 2020, but North Korea has tested a further seven missiles since.

In conjunction with developing the bombs themselves, Kim increased focus on developing and testing new delivery methods. From ICBMs that could hit the US mainland to submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and even recently testing an alleged hypersonic glider, Pyongyang’s arsenal is becoming a very real threat.

Although satellites were the only things launched in 2012, the April 15 parade commemorating Kim Il-sung’s centenary featured six KN-08 ICBMs. It is now believed that the parade only showed crude mockups of the missiles, but that the missile program itself was very real (for instance, the nose cone for its reentry vehicle is known to have been tested at the Chamjin test site in 2016). Future parades showed improved variants of the missile, with the 2012 version only being a two-stage missile while a parade in 2015 showed a three-stage version.

The KN-08 program was eventually canceled without the real missile ever being tested, but the development teams working on the program were sent to work on the Hwasong-12, -14, and -15 missiles. The knowledge from the KN-08 program included work on reentry vehicles and adding a third stage to their missiles, as three stages are required for the missile to reach targets as far away as the United States and the reentry vehicle is what protects the nuclear warhead on its descent.

Speaking on whether or not the technology “displayed” by the KN-08 in 2012 was feasible or merely fantasy on behalf of Pyongyang, arms experts Jeffrey Lewis and John Schilling said, “elegant or not, these options are good enough to produce missiles with theoretical ranges from 5,500 kilometers to over 11,000 kilometers. The latter would allow virtually the entire United States of America to be reached from North Korean launch sites”.

Thus, while a real KN-08 was never seen, it broadcast to the world what North Korea was striving to build. Future launches of other missiles would later prove, as Lewis and Schilling suggested, that North Korea could accomplish the overall goals envisioned by the KN-08 variants.

The following year only saw minor testing as a series of six short-range missiles were launched on three different occasions in May from the Hodo Peninsula near Wonsan. While not crucial to the development of any new weapon system, the routine firing of existing missiles helps to better train North Korea’s Strategic Rocket Force and can be part of Pyongyang’s cycle of provocation followed by diplomatic overtures.

The first half of 2014 led to a major crisis. Starting in March, thirty rockets were fired on the 21st followed by two Hwasong-7 medium-range ballistic missiles. The growing tensions precipitated a massive exchange of artillery fire between the two Korea’s on the 27th across the Northern Limit Line in the West Sea.

Less than two months later on May 1, commercial satellite imagery revealed new activity at the Sohae Satellite Launch Center including modification of the gantry used to launch the Unha-3 in 2012, the construction of additional buildings, and showed evidence of multiple engine tests of the KN-08.

The exact beginnings of North Korea’s attempt to develop submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) are obscure, but Kim Jong-un has placed this leg of a potential nuclear triad (land-based, sea-based, and nuclear bombers) upfront along with the development of land-based missiles. Such a capability would help ensure the survivability of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal (as submarines are much harder to target and most are stationed at underground bases) and would also give North Korea a second-strike capability (being able to launch missiles even after being hit by an initial nuclear strike).

The South Sinpo Shipyard/Mayang Island Base is North Korea’s primary submarine and SLBM development complex. Apart from the test stand that was erected in 2014, two construction halls were also modernized. Additionally, The Washington Free Beacon noted that a test platform submarine was located at the base, indicative of future testing.

That October, a successful land-based static ejection test (a test of the canister system) for the Pukkuksong-1 (KN-11) SLBM was carried out. This was followed by a failed test in November. The nature of a series of later tests in 2014 and 2015 remains unknown as competing sources claim some were only ejection tests while other sources say some tests were done with the use of a submersible barge.

However, on April 23, 2016, North Korea again made use of the facility by testing the Pukkuksong-1’s “cold launch” vertical launching system capability. The test wasn’t a flawless success, but it did demonstrate the feasibility of the cold launch process, moving North Korea’s SLBM program forward.

Finally, on August 24, 2016, North Korea launched the first fully successful SLBM from a submarine instead of from a submerged barge. Being observed by Kim Jong-un and flying some 500 km on a lofted trajectory, the Korean Central News Agency said that the country had now “joined the front rank of the military powers fully equipped with nuclear attack capability”.

Beginning in 2016 and going through 2017, North Korea experienced an inordinate number of failures across a range of missile types compared to previous years. In 2016 there were ten failures and in 2017 there were seven, compared to just two in 2015. Defectors claimed that Kim Jong-un had become upset by the failures and ordered an investigation into them. In 2017, even President Donald Trump began mocking the situation saying, “all his rockets are crashing”.

But this high failure rate may not have been entirely due to problems with North Korean manufacturing or technical expertise. Coinciding with these crashes, it was revealed by the New York Times in March 2017 that the United States had been attempting for years to interfere with the missiles or missile testing process in some way (perhaps trying to find simple but critical weak points such as during the Stuxnet hack that caused a thousand Iranian centrifuges to break because a small regulatory component was forced into failure).

Whether or not the missile failures were directly caused by covert operations we don’t know, but what we do know is that the failures soon stopped happening. By 2018, only one test failed. Since then, Pyongyang has managed a 100% success rate.

During that time of increased failures, however, were some spectacular successes.

Most notably was the May 14, 2017 test of the Hwasong-12 IRBM, which is capable of reaching the US territory (and major military base) of Guam. And finally, what followed on July 4.

On that day, under the observation of Kim Jong-un, the Hwasong-14 ICBM was first tested. It was described as a “gift” to the “American bastards” on America’s Independence Day.

It flew on a lofted trajectory reaching an apogee of 2,800 km above earth and flying for a range of 930 km. This placed the whole of the continental US in range if it were to fly along a more typical ballistic trajectory.

According to North Korea, the missile also had a device onboard that would be used to detonate a warhead should one ever be mounted on the missile, and that the device functioned properly despite all of the physical stresses of the launch.

Now, North Korea’s arsenal had arrived at the ability to target US forces in South Korea with short-range ballistic missiles, target bases throughout the Pacific with intermediate-range missiles, and even to target New York City or Washington, DC with the Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile.

Of course, in the middle of all of these missile tests were the three nuclear tests, each one demonstrating North Korea’s abilities to make better and better devices capable of being mass-produced and mounted on top of these newly minted missile systems.

Fast-forwarding a bit to the Oct. 10, 2020 parade in commemoration of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea, North Korea showed off an 11-axle TEL with its associated missile, the Hwasong-16. The missile appears to be a new, larger iteration of the Hwasong-15. At 24-26 meters in length, this would make the Hwasong-16 the world’s largest road-mobile ICBM currently in active service.

However, it wasn’t necessarily the missile that drew attention. Although the Hwasong-16 does show that North Korea can scale up their existing technology and may indicate they are researching the ability to launch multiple warheads known as MIRVs, the TEL itself was the “wow” factor.

North Korea is known to have imported a limited number of large vehicles from China, notably, eight WS51200 TELs in 2011. But they are not known to possess the ability to domestically produce TELs of that size or larger (the Hwasong-16 TEL has three additional axles than does the WS51200).

So the appearance of the TEL suggests that either North Korea has gotten very good at modifying these vehicles, of which there are only 11, or most worryingly, that they can now domestically manufacture extra-large TELs. If they can produce them, then this raises the stakes because they can produce as many as they need for their missile program instead of having to rely on a limited number of TELs of varying models.

This would make it even more difficult for the United States or its allies to conduct strikes against North Korea’s missile forces as they would likely lack sufficient intelligence to ensure all relevant targets were hit. This paucity of knowledge, particularly through public sources, was corroborated by the 2021 US Defense Intelligence Agency report North Korea Military Power which gave the number of launchers for eleven different missile systems (including the Hawsong-16) as “undetermined”.

Looking toward his next decade, at the start of 2021 at the Eighth Party Congress, Kim laid out multiple short-term and long-term goals for future military technology in a wide-ranging, nine-hour report. Among those goals was the development of new tactical nuclear weapons, ‘super-sized’ warheads, new long-range ballistic missiles that could reach 15,000 km, the development of hypersonic weapons (more on that later), solid-fuel ICBMs and submarine-launched missiles, as well as the future launch of a military reconnaissance satellite.

Since then, we have seen several new or improved weapon systems.

On Sept. 15, 2021, North Korea tested its first rail-based ballistic missile by launching a short-range missile from a modified railcar. While the general technology isn’t new, it is new to North Korea and would give them an added edge in improving the survivability of their missiles as North Korea’s best transportation infrastructure is their railway and there are hundreds of tunnels along the tracks that these systems could be hidden in prior to firing.

That same weekend, the country also tested a cruise missile with a range of at least 1,500 km. According to Foreign Policy, the test “appears to demonstrate that Pyongyang now possesses a cruise missile capability that it could use to conduct long-range and difficult-to-detect conventional or potentially nuclear strikes against South Korea, Japan, or U.S. military bases in the region.”

And then there is the Hwasong-8 hypersonic glider. First tested on Sept. 28, 2021, the launch came an hour before Kim Song, North Korea's Ambassador to the United Nations, gave remarks and declared that the country had a “righteous right” to test missiles.

While the launch could just as easily have been a feasibility test, with North Korea needing more time to develop a deployable weapon, it is still one of the most advanced systems tested by Kim Jong-un. If it is indeed a hypersonic reentry glider, it could slam into targets without the risk of being intercepted. As Joseph Trevithick wrote, “This combination of speed, maneuverability, and flight profile make them extremely challenging targets for air-defense networks to track and intercept, compared to traditional ballistic missiles”.

There are even more missiles and weapon systems under development aimed at raising the “treasured sword” to even greater heights and capabilities. From the continuation of the SLBM program with the Pukkuksong-4 and -5 to the “March 25” SRBM and more, the months and years ahead are sure to provide many more tests and greater threats as North Korea’s missile program is moving rapidly forward.



Following the 2013 nuclear test, which was the largest to that point, North Korea passed the Nuclear Weapons State Law in which the Supreme People’s Assembly not only declared the country a full nuclear power, but laid out ten provisions for the purpose, use, and future of its nuclear arsenal. Additionally, the Ten Principles for a Monolithic Ideological System and other de facto and de jure laws of the country were updated to reflect this. Finally, in April 2018, Kim Jong-un declared the “great victory of the byungjin line” (a policy he had resurrected in 2013) in response to the construction of the state’s nuclear forces, seven months after their final nuclear test and following the success of the Hwasong-14 ICBM launch.

The nuclear testing moratorium since 2017 may be of value in and of itself, but it is clear that their nuclear program hasn’t been ended or even paused. And Pyongyang has resumed its cycle of provocations and bluster followed by requests for talks and aid (which the next chapter will cover). This is a cycle that has endured for decades and only ends up buying North Korea the time they need to work on their latest project; a strategy they’ve been rather successful at.

At times through writing this chapter it almost felt as though I was being “pro-Pyongyang”, but the inescapable truth is that no matter what failures have occurred and in spite of attempts to alter their behavior with sanctions, North Korea has made impressive progress in the areas of nuclear weapons and missiles. And no amount of horror regarding starvation and human rights abuses or moralizing over the priorities of Pyongyang can change that fact.

Through demonstrations of the Hwasong-8, -10, -11, -12, -14, -15, -16, and Pukkuksong-1 and 2 missiles and through testing rounds of extended range SRBMs and cruise missiles, this has enabled North Korea to prove it can target ranges from South Korea to Japan to Guam and to New York City. This, along with the high likelihood of the 2017 nuclear test being a thermonuclear weapon and the ongoing development of submarine-launched ballistic missiles and even hypersonic weapons, Kim Jong-un has given teeth to the 2013 law and has fulfilled the aims of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il by not just producing the various parts needed for a nuclear force but has developed an increasingly complex and integrated nuclear deterrent using all available means.

The ‘Self-Defense 2021’ exhibition of missiles, radars, and space technology which Kim attended only underscores their progress toward achieving Kim’s most recent “wish list” and lays out their future ambitions.

The sword has been sharpened. It’s up to Kim Jong-un and the international community to help ensure it is never unsheathed.


Additional reading from AccessDPRK

1. The Current State of North Korea’s Satellite and Missile Facilities, Jan. 11, 2020
2. Nuclear Fallout: The Health Consequences of Pyongyang’s Nuclear Program Part I, Dec. 23, 2019
3. Nuclear Fallout: The Health Consequences of Pyongyang’s Nuclear Program Part II, Dec. 27, 2019

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I have scheduled this project to run through to the end of the year, with a new article coming out roughly every 10 days or so. If you would like to support the project and help me with research costs, please consider supporting AccessDPRK on Patreon. Those supporters donating $15 or more each month will be entitled to a final PDF version of all the articles together that will also have additional information included once the series is finished. They will also receive a Google Earth map related to the events in the series, and can get access to the underlying data behind the supplemental reports.

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I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Amanda O., GreatPoppo, Joel Parish, John Pike, Kbechs87, Rinmanah, Russ Johnson, and ZS.

--Jacob Bogle, 10/16/2021