Thursday, November 1, 2018

Prison Camp 22 Today

Camp 22 (Kwanliso 22) was a major prison camp within North Korea's extensive prison system. Located in the far north of the country in North Hamgyong Province, it covered some 87 square miles and had the capacity to hold over 20,000 prisoners. In 2012, reporting from the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea and others suggested that the camp had been closed down and its thousands of prisoners either murdered (including by starvation) or transferred to other prison camps.

While the outline of the security fence system remains, the fences and guard towers have all been demolished. As well, during the 2012-2013 time frame, regular domestic buildings were constructed including town administrative buildings, Juche study halls, and monuments. These are items that are largely missing from prison camps but exist in practically every town and village in the country. This strongly suggests that the site has been turned over to civilian use, possibly as a non-penal exile site (as the main roads in and out of the former camp still retain access control points).

The largest changes to the former camp facilities, besides the removal of fencing and guard posts, seems to be the demolition of two buildings within the camp's administrative center, which includes the torture facility.

Camp administrative center in 2010 with buildings of interest.

Camp administrative center with unidentified building and the torture center demolished as of 2018.

Changes to the villages within the camp attest to its current non-penal nature and shows that something did in fact change in the area's administration after 2012 when all of these changes began to appear.

Raksaeng-ri, a village within the camp as seen in 2011.

Raksaeng-ri after camp closure. Common civilian buildings have been constructed.

The village of Kulsan-ri in 2011.

Kulsan with a new school and other buildings as of 2018.

Agricultural and mining activities appear to have continued with little interruption since the closure as crops can be seen in various stages of growth and harvest over the years, and trains still visit the mining depot. However, the entrance points to the area are still controlled by check points. All of this leads me to believe that the camp is now being used for either one of two things.

The first is that is could now be a regular agricultural and mining area, however, the government still hasn't fully sanitized the former camp of bodies and other evidence that this was a terrible place and so needs greater control over who gets in and out.
The second is that this is a non-penal location used to send exiles and other non-criminal undesirables. The nearby county of Onsong (which also used to have a prison camp) and the northern reaches of the country in general have long been regions to which the government sent exiles. Pyongyang is regularly purged of "lesser" citizens and there are reports of "abnormal" people (like dwarfs) being rounded up and sent to places out of sight of the capital and visitors. 

There is a third option but it is unlikely, and that is that the camp is still a prison but is being administered in a radically new way.

The main entrance check point as seen in 2016.

It is an unequivocal positive that there is one less prison in North Korea, however the regime seems to show no real interest in doing away with political prison camps or mass internment in general. Prisons like Chongjin, Kaechon, and Chongori have all been expanded in the last decade and repression continues unabated.

--Jacob Bogle 11/1/18

Friday, October 5, 2018

The Vatican's Abbey in North Korea

Few realize that Korea was once the most Christian region in Asia, particularly Pyongyang. In fact, Kim Il Sung's own father was a Protestant deacon. After the division of the Korean peninsula, Kim Il Sung began a mass purge of Christians and suppressed all forms of religion, including Buddhism and traditional folk beliefs. Several hundred former religions structures survived these purges and the Korean War, but they played an ever diminishing role in the lives of the people. Today, only token "churches" and "temples" exist in the country, and a few Buddhist sites that are scattered around are left open as tourist spots.

By Kaliwallace, DeviantArt.

Just outside of the urban core of the coastal city of Wonsan exists a curious remnant of the former religious life of the northern Korean people. Although monks, nuns, and their associated religious buildings existed in the area since the 1920s, the Territorial Abbey of Tokwon wasn't established until 1940. It only managed to service the surrounding counties until 1949, as that's when things began to drastically change. In May 1949, North Korean secret police arrested the Abbey's 80 or so Catholic personnel (which included foreigners as well) and over the next several years 35 of them had died from execution, hard labor, and starvation. Among those who died was the Benedictine Abbot-Bishop Boniface Sauer, who died on February 1, 1950. In 1952 the remaining German monks and sisters were deported.

Wonsan University of Agriculture. Google Earth, Nov. 3, 2017.

The Abbey building itself suffered bombing damage during the Korean War but it was later converted to secular use. It now sits on the campus of the Wonsan University of Agriculture. 
Some of the survivors established a new monastery in South Korea, and that monastery is the technical administrator of Tokwon - however no one is allowed to visit Tokwon and no religious services are held there. Despite the events of history and the reality on the ground, Tokwon is still one of the few official territorial abbeys of the Catholic Church, and the only one in Asia.

Tokwon Abbey building. Google Earth, Nov. 3, 2017.

Abbot-Bishop Boniface Sauer and the other Tokwon martyrs are now among over 100 North Korean Catholics who are under consideration for beatification. One of the major accomplishments of the monks and nuns of Tokwon was the translation of the New Testament epistles and the Book of Revelation into Korean.

Abbot-Bishop Boniface Sauer (bottom row, center) and the brothers of Tokwon. Image date unknown.

Christianity (all denominations) went from one of the largest faiths in North Korea, with over 1.7 million adherents prior to the Korean War, to as few as 11,000 mostly older followers. The only official Christian organization in the country is the Korean Christian Federation, which claims some 10,000 members. While the North Korean Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, it also bans any activities that may detract from the power of the state, organizations that could be tools of imperialism, and other related prohibitions. Under these vague terms, the state can suppress any religion it desires. Indeed, Christians in North Korea are considered the most oppressed religious group in the world and countless thousands have been murdered by the regime in concentration camps.

The newly completed Abbey. Original date and source unknown.

When Korea was divided, access to countless human stories and historical sites vanished from the face of the earth. We can use satellite images, defector testimony, and the ever shrinking pool of living memory to help reconstruct the past, but the true story of the millions who have survived, endured, or died over the course of the past 70 years will only ever been known when North Korea is finally opened to the world.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Democratic Peoples' Republic of Leisure Expands

Kim Jong Un may love his nuclear weapons and hasn't shown any intention of closing down North Korea's concentration camp system, but he has been a "builder leader". The country's generation of market activity has meant a new middle class, new expectations, and the money to accomplish them (at least superficially).

Kim has overseen the construction of new ski resorts, expanded airports, and new water parks. He has infused Pyongyang's zoo and museums with additional resources, constructed countless apartments, and now has embarked on the construction of further parks for the amusement of his people. I suppose the thinking goes, if they're distracted by games, they wont call for his head.

Starting in 2017, major cities have had small "town square" parks (as I call them) being constructed.
I can only speculate as to the exact nature of these new parks as I haven't seen any pictures of them from the ground, but they all follow the same basic design and have enough space for gaming stalls and a few small shops. What makes me call them town squares is their resemblance to known urban warfare training centers in the country, which aim to create realistic looking urban areas to train soldiers for fighting in cities. Using Google Earth, I have been able to locate 15 of these parks.

Here is a completed park in Toksong, South Hamgyong Province. (Click on images for a larger view)

As of August 2018, the park in Kimchaek, North Hamgyong is still under construction.

In Unryul, South Hwanghae, the "town" is part of a larger park area.

The other cities where I have found these new parks are:
Kangryong, Munchon, Ongjin, Pukchong, Pyonggang, Sinhung, Sonbong, Taetan, Tanchon, Tongrim, Yongchon, and Yomju.

Such parks aren't without precedent. Folk villages, such as in Sariwon, are common in both North and South Korea. And individual buildings (like restaurants) or even whole sectors of a town that are constructed in traditional styles can be found in multiple places. Perhaps these more modern looking buildings are in tribute to the Kim Jong Un architectural 'revolution'.

--Jacob Bogle, 9/6/2018

Monday, September 3, 2018

The Marketization of North Korea

North Korea as proof that the drive toward freedom is universal, and that economic freedom creates personal freedom.

Libertarians love all kinds of freedom, and we’re basically obsessed with economics. We understand that economic liberty means a person is free to do what they want with their property, their capital, and their ideas. Anytime a new Uber or Airbnb comes along, we hold them up as exemplars of what innovation – and the liberty to utilize it – can accomplish. We also, rightly, become incensed whenever government tries to limit competition and squash innovation for the benefit of one group over another.

When discussing freedom and free markets, socialism and communism are often used as examples of how state control ultimately leads to failure. But no nation in modern history is quite like North Korea. Not only is North Korea among the last Stalinist states, it will also become the longest-lived communist regime on Sept. 9, 2018 when it will celebrate its 70th anniversary (beating the Soviet Union by one year).

North Korea is unique in many ways and has surpassed basically every other totalitarian system in its breadth of control. This is why looking at what the people of North Korea themselves have done regarding market activity and the spontaneous drive for freedom makes North Korea, in my view, the best example of why liberty works and offers the most chances for happiness and well-being for all people.

As the saying goes, “it’s the economy, stupid!” Well, it really, really is. The ability to engage in economics is everything and affects every part of life.

Historical context
Korea had been a unified feudal kingdom for a thousand years prior to 1910, when Japan annexed Korea. Fast forward to the end of World War II, and the Allies have to figure out what to do with all of the places Japan had occupied.

America and the Soviet Union came up with a very hasty and poorly thought out plan in 1945 to divide Korea into two areas along the 38th Parallel. The North would be under Soviet control and the South would be under American control. The plan called for an election in the future so that Korea could be reunified – either along communist or democratic lines. That election didn’t happen.
Not wanting to wait any longer for reunification, North Korea invaded the South in 1950. The Korean War ensued, devastated the country, and killed millions of people. The war ended with an armistice in 1953. North Korea’s attempt to reunite the country under a single system once more has led to these 64 years of division. That division has been so great that even the Korean language has rapidly developed into two very distinct dialects.

It goes without saying, that since northern Korea was controlled by the Soviets, they developed a communist, top-down controlled economic system. Due to the period of Japanese occupation, northern Korea was actually the industrial center of the peninsula, while the southern half was the bread basket. And despite the utter devastation of Korea during the Korean War, North Korea (under Kim Il Sung and with Soviet help) managed to rapidly rebuild their country. North Korea managed to be economically, technologically, and militarily more advanced than the capitalist south all the way into the 1960s.

--- At this point, I feel it’s important to describe just what is meant by a top-down command economy in terms of North Korea. This doesn’t mean the leadership says, ‘we need to focus on infrastructure’ and a spending bill gets passed. It means every aspect of the economy is controlled by the Korean Workers Party, which is itself controlled by smaller organizations that all directly answer to Kim Jong Un. If a new factory needs to be built, or if there’s a shortage of farmers, even things like entertainment and the arts – it only happens once the government says it needs to happen. There is no room for the spontaneous order that makes capitalist systems so adaptive. ---

Division of the economy
The economy can roughly be divided into 3-4 sectors: the official economy, the parallel military economy, and a mix of grey and black markets. And you can further divide the economy into two eras, the pre-famine and post-famine eras.

The famine of 1994-98, to me, stands out as the breaking point. Prior to the famine, everyone received food rations via the Public Distribution System. Everybody received a certain amount of grains and fats on a regular basis (although the amounts and exact products varied according to how important the government thought you were). That system began to slowly erode through the 1970s and into the 1980s, and by the 1990s most people were receiving only a fraction of what they usually got. And instead of getting them once a month, three or four months might go by in between. People would forage for wild foods and engage in very limited market activity (which was generally illegal). But, widespread starvation wasn’t yet happening and the Distribution System was still partially functional.

North Korea had played the Soviet Union and China off each other for decades whenever the two big communist states would have sour relations. This meant North Korea received very cheap fuel, fertilizer, and food subsidies – and consequently lacked the incentive to improve their own agricultural and industrial sectors. It also meant they were incredibly dependent upon those subsidies. Once the Soviet Union collapsed and the Eastern Bloc moved toward integration with the open world economy, North Korea lost its most important patron. China still provided some “friendship aid”, but it wasn’t enough to make up the difference.

--- To help you understand the odd system in North Korea, I need to explain the official political ideology of the country. North Korea began distancing itself from being an official communist or Marxist-Leninist state in the 1970s. They replaced it with something called Juche, which basically means “self-reliance”. It means the country should be self-reliant and that each person is a “master of his own fate”. Of course that push to be self-reliant was happening when North Korea was entirely reliant on outside sources of aid to feed its people. And despite the positively sounding idea of each person being the maters of their own fate, they are only the masters of their fate within the guidance of the Korean Worker’s Party. Your sole purpose for existence extends to fulfilling the quote, unquote “revolution”. The only thoughts and behaviors allowed are those that follow the government. ---

Famine and collapse
At the end of the Cold War, the government began running out of food and fuel reserves. A series of floods then hit the region which compounded problems associated with the very poor soil management system in the North, which then led to the destruction of millions of acres of food and severely damaged their irrigation systems. Without adequate fertilizer and the fields being covered in mud, famine soon began to take hold; hitting the northern regions of the country the hardest.
The famine resulted in 1 million deaths, or almost 5% of the population. It also sank their economy. In order to survive, people started taking matters into their own hands.

This is where that fundamental drive to survive meets with economics and the reclamation of one’s own agency. Ironically, it turned Juche away from meaning total obedience to and reliance on the state into a growing reliance on one’s own efforts. As we will see, it’s also a testament to the power of women to change the lives of countless people.

Under the official system, every man not serving in the military had to work at one of countless state-controlled jobs. Be it at a factory, as a teacher, a farmer, in coal mines, etc. Even when the electricity failed, imports stopped, and the factories were neglected to the point of complete inoperability, all good socialist men reported to work to stand around all day under the ever-watchful eyes of the country’s surveillance system. Despite not producing anything in their factories, they were still paid the appropriate state wages – which amounted to just a few dollars a month.
This money was never meant to be the primary way people got their food, medicine, or other necessities, but with the Public Distribution System now totally collapsed and the currency tanked in value, a month’s wages may be all that a family received and it might not be enough to purchase just a few days’ worth of food.

Black markets and Korean women
Despite the full equality granted to women by the North Korean constitution, North Korea has married communist philosophies with traditional Confucian ones. This means that while women can vote, join the military, and serve in public office, most are still stuck at home or on collective farms with no real ability to step outside the more traditional roles of women.
But with the famine and the failure of the state to provide, and with the men-folk away at work – not doing anything and not earning anything – it was up to wives and mothers to become the true breadwinners, lest their family starve.

Black-markets have existed in a limited sense throughout North Korean history and women have always been allowed to sell things like handicrafts. But selling anything like food, consumer goods, or raw materials was strictly forbidden and could easily result in the seller being sent to prison. What began as trading small amounts of wild herbs or what little food could be grown on the tiny plots of land your house sat on, gradually grew into large informal marketplaces where you could find lots of items.

People started leaving the unproductive collective farms in favor of tending illegal farms high up in the hills. Women not only traded with their neighbors, but began to branch out throughout their city and eventually around the country. Defections also rose significantly in the years following the famine along with the growth of these markets.

At one point, women made up over 70% of defections. One reason for this is because nearly all men have to serve long terms in the military, and so couldn't easily get away. And the other is that those men who aren’t in the military have to maintain a job. This means a woman missing for a day or two can be overlooked. By the time people start noticing, she’s long gone. Men on the other hand are kept under a much more watchful eye.

Travelling outside of your town requires government permission, and that meant bribes had to be paid. The result is that now you have people being able to travel to different parts of the country, and low-level officials turning a blind eye because they were getting more income from bribes than they were getting from the government that was supposed to supply for the needs of everyone.  Naturally, men started getting tired of seeing their wives out preform them, so they started paying bribes to the factory managers in order not to show up for “work” so they, too, could earn money. The array of goods floating around on the black market exploded. Workers would even dismantle their factories and machines to sell parts and as scrap metal (often to China), and the managers would over look this since they were making enough money to pay off their own supervisors, and so on.

The explosion of market activity can readily be seen using satellite imagery. In the early-to-mid 2000s, there were around 100 markets in North Korea, often on the outskirts of town or would pop up on occasion for a day or two before disappearing.  Today, there are over 400 markets. Market activity became so widespread that the government had to allow them. Instead of being shady places in back alleys, they’re now in the middle of town and housed in permanent facilities. Of course the government charges fees, and there are still some rules, but on the whole, the market is where most people go to meet their daily needs. These markets can be relatively small, with just a few stalls, or extremely large, covering an area greater than 67,000 sq. ft. like some in Pyongyang.

This map shows nearly 400 identifiable markets in North Korea. Information is based on the 2017 release of the AccessDPRK Mapping Project.

The fact the government allows markets to exist in the open and that so many people take advantage of having them, shows the power of people. North Koreans who were determined not to die of neglect created a system based on capitalism – even if they didn’t really know the terms, or know that what they were doing was capitalism. Faced with a choice between regime survival or the loss of all control, the government finally relented.

Grey markets
As with every country that experiences dramatic changes, be they the result of a famine, or hyperinflation, or any other examples in history, people changing their behaviors to maximize survival – even if it means ignoring government rules – extends to all levels of a society.
As I mentioned earlier, North Korea’s economy can be divided into a few sectors. Prior to the famine there were only two: the government economy and the military economy. Post famine, the growth of unsanctioned market activity had grown to be a serious competitor with the official economies of state. So much so, that the military and bureaucracies began taking part. After all, no amount of propaganda or loyalty to an abstract ideology will prevent people from seeking out a living when their lives are hanging in the balance. The benefits of engaging in marketplace activity became clear for all to see.

One main difference between black markets and grey markets is that a grey market is an otherwise unapproved economic activity that is done under the color of official sanction. At the same time the markets began to take off, the government began to demand that all the different agencies, departments, and military units come up with ways to pay and feed their own members, as well as earn hard currency for the regime. This was a tacit acknowledgment by the Kims that the government couldn’t fulfill its basic obligations and that they would allow limited trading activities so long as they didn’t cause an overall disruption or threaten the power of the Kim family and the Party. With that change in policy, public-private partnerships began to spring up everywhere.

One major area where this is true is in mining. A group of citizens who has access to unskilled labor will go to the appropriate local official in charge of mining. They will pay the official a large bribe and he will issue them the needed permits in return for future kickbacks. If they have enough money, he will even help them access necessary equipment. Government scientists, like geologists, are also highly sought after for the purpose of locating mining sites. The government agency can now count on receiving regular amounts of currency (which they were required to raise anyway) and the low-level people can earn far more money selling the mined material than they would engaging in more legitimate work – while also having the backing of those officials in the event security agencies start asking questions.

One of the few areas that is strictly off-limits to this, however, is gold mining. If you are caught illegally mining gold, you are accused of stealing from Kim Jong Un himself. Selling gold was one of the reasons Kim’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek, got in trouble and led to his executed in 2013. But there are plenty of other valuable minerals to be mined, coal in particular. The number of small coal mines scattered across the country is immense.  And you can see their numbers rise via satellite as time goes on. This isn’t to say life is easy, especially for the average unskilled worker. Concepts like workplace safety are unheard-of and terrible accidents are common. But the otherwise ever-present specter of malnutrition and living a life wholly dependent on government has greatly diminished.

This mix of markets has created a burgeoning new middle class. While they would be considered poor to Western standards, this cohort has ready access to food, consumer goods, better housing, and can occasionally use their relative wealth to buy their way into the higher ranks of the government’s classification system. This system, called Songbun, stratifies people into three main categories with 50 or so smaller sub-divisions. Moving up levels means your life and your family’s lives will be better off and have greater opportunities, but it used to be incredibly difficult to do. But now, flush with cash, this middle class can change the destinies of their children for the better.

Public-private arrangements have been so successful that they have fueled an enormous construction boom. The skyline of Pyongyang would be unrecognizable to someone living even 15 years ago, and major cities around the country have benefited as well. Many in North Korea’s million-man army are used as laborers in these projects. While that isn’t anything new for North Korea, now specialist military carpenters and other skilled soldiers are paid a premium by the newly rich for their skills at constructing quality buildings and even creating home fixtures.

Marketization and culture
All of this more general economic activity has helped open the door to things that aren’t strictly a matter of finance or infrastructure. Personal freedoms, too, have begun to expand. Cell phones, now numbering over three million, not only facilitate trade, but have obviously had an impact on the personal lives of those who own them.

Prior to marketization and the ability for people to even have a cell phone, communication between average people was generally limited to speaking in person and writing letters. Few people even have landline phones as they require a substantial government approval process. Relationship opportunities were thus limited as well. Even today something we’d consider very trivial, like holding hands in public, is frowned upon. Dating, as we know it in the West, simply doesn’t exist and North Koreans remain painfully na├»ve when it comes to sex. Picking a wife or husband usually involved having the marriage arranged by family, or simply picking a mate based on their good songbun.

Now, however, armed with cell phones and disposable income, a small degree of liberality has set in. Young lovers can now find rooms to rent by the hour – usually in the home of a grandmother who is eager to earn a little extra money. She will often go for a walk or visit the local marketplace for a bit, while the young couple gets to know one another. Even more scandalous activities like prostitution, which was seen as part of the moral depravity of capitalist societies, is now exercised in public. There are even reports of police actually helping protect the women.

On less dramatic topics, the availability of consumer goods like electronics, and the willingness to break the law to watch pirated South Korean TV shows and American movies, has begun to create a population that expects to live a better life; one that includes leisure. Even though the national priority of leisure may seem to belong at the bottom of the list, considering malnutrition is still generally widespread and that thousands continue to languish behind the electrified fences of concentration camps, the government has taken to importing countless electronic items from China. North Korea is even producing their own cloned versions of iPads, Mac Computers, and the Windows Operating System. The government has also begun to build amusement parks and arcades.

Going back to the construction boom, a sort of semi-legitimate housing market has emerged as well. Private ownership of property isn’t possible in North Korea, but people are issued “residency certificates” that, for all practical purposes, are treated the same way a deed would be treated elsewhere. So, when someone makes enough money and they want to move, they simply sell the residency certificate and acquire a new one for their new home. This further weakens the state's control over the lives of the people.

In conclusion
Even in the most oppressive country on earth, where people literally don’t understand that there are different kinds of love (for true love is reserved only for the Kim family), or that using your talents and ingenuity to deal fairly with your fellow man is the basis of capitalism – despite these things, the human spirit endures. The desire for individuality and for forging your way is engrained in our very make-up, and no system of government or amount of repression can fully drive out the essence of liberty.

The determination of the people to live their own lives spurred on the marketization of the country. That, in turn, provided enough pressure to “encourage” the government to accept the markets, the slightly freer movement of people within the country, and provided the incentive needed to modernize and upgrade certain areas of the infrastructure (which had previously been kept limited and served as a means of defending against an invading army).

For those of us in the United States (and the rest of the world), it isn’t simply enough that we fight to be allowed to rent a room to a stranger, or be allowed to buy and sell online with a level of privacy. As North Korea shows, creating and forcing economic freedom from the bottom up forces governments to change and provides the environment needed for greater personal freedoms. However, the inverse is also true. When government seeks to limit either personal or economic freedom, it begins to impinge on the other liberties we have.

Things like privacy rights helps ensure a confident consumer; be they a consumer of Walmart or a consumer of  government services. The protection of free speech enables concepts like Wikipedia to turn into a reality that can actually challenge authoritarian systems around the world. Defending free association and ending access barriers to technologies that were once inaccessible to the private sector, like the exploration of space, makes things like Google Earth and reusable space craft a reality. The benefits are endless.

If the people of North Korea can crack the heavy veil of 70 years of oppression and servitude, we can and we must do all that’s possible to prevent the erosion of the liberties we have enjoyed for over two centuries.

(This was originally presented to the Rutherford County Libertarian Party on Sept. 5, 2017.)

--Jacob Bogle, 9/5/2017

Thursday, May 17, 2018

NK's Construction Boom Continues

As I noted with Pyongyang, North Korea has embarked on a multi-billion dollar construction campaign since Kim Jong Un assumed power in December 2011. From new and improved airports, to expansive tourist developments, and more, the construction boom is continuing apace.

While most of the attention is given to Pyongyang and Wonsan, the large east coast city of Hamhung is receiving its fair share of upgrades. Current changes include hundreds of new housing units, a new orphanage, and the complete reconstruction of an underground complex. Other projects completed since 2011 include a new rocket engine test facility, a water park, and additional housing throughout the city.

Click on any image for an enlarged view.

There have been three large sets of family housing constructed between 2015 and 2017. The yellow area was constructed from 2015-2016, the two blue areas in 2016, and the red between 2016 and 2017.

Additionally, Hamhung now has its own version of Pyongyang's Mirae Street - new large apartment blocks and tall buildings lining a major road. For Hamhung, they're located across from the National Science Academy on Jongsong Street. The initial planning for part of these apartment blocks began sometime before 2007, as foundation excavation can be seen, but the project stalled and construction didn't resume until 2010. The southern half of the project didn't get its start until 2015, and the whole row of buildings weren't completed until late 2017-early 2018.

New orphanages, nurseries, and retirement facilities have been constructed in many of the largest cities in the country, with Hamhung recently completing its new orphanage and nursery.

The nursery also has 8 small sets of solar panels. Some are in the yard and others are on the roof.

Based on historical Landsat imagery, this underground complex and its associated external buildings were constructed around 2003. Beginning in 2016, major renovations and reconstruction could be seen. The different buildings are in various stages of work.

Hamhung has a long history of playing a role in North Korea's nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs. Undoubtedly such a large underground facility is part of a major research program. Unfortunately, I have not been able to positively identify the site. If you know what purpose it serves, please leave a comment or contact me directly!

Here is a close-up of the Hamhung water park that was constructed in 2013. Since coming to power, Kim Jong Un has devoted a large amount of resources to constructing leisure facilities like water parks, amusement parks, ski resorts, and upgrading open spaces and athletic facilities.

Finally, located less than 2 miles (2.8 km) down the coast from the "No. 17 Explosives Factory" in southern Hamhung, is the Magunpo Rocket Engine Test Facility. Construction of the site began in 2013 and was completed by the end of 2014-early 2015. The focus of the facility is to test solid propellants, and the last test occurred in October 2017.

--Jacob Bogle, 5/17/2018

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Rockets and Runways

Kim Jong Un observing the Sept. 15, 2017 launch of a Hwasong-12 ICBM at the Pyongyang-Sunan International Airport. (Source: KCNA)

Kim Jong Un is well on his way to becoming the most prolific builder since his grandfather, Kim Il Sung. There are the new roads, the billions spent on construction projects in Pyongyang and in other major cities, modernizing airports and constructing new ones, and much more. Kim Jong Un has been busy as he enters his seventh year in power.

Those further changes to North Korea's military airbases and other runways, as well as the stunning advancement of their ballistic missile program makes it necessary for me to write, once more, about the ever progressing nature of North Korea's military. There are three main areas of focus for this post. The first is the construction of multiple new aircraft parking revetments at new and older emergency runways. The second is the construction of more emergency runways. And the third deals with the possibility of the merging of North Korea's major airbases and ICBM program.

North Korea has 111 airports, airbases, heliports, emergency highway runways, and other landing strips. Particularly since 2016, nearly all of their emergency highway runways (straight sections of road that have been widened for use by aircraft in the event of a war) have had aircraft parking revetments constructed to augment each site. Additional basic runways have also had revetments constructed. In all, 15 airfields have had new revetments constructed. The number of revetments varies between one and four (most have three), but there is a grand total of 39 individual revetments which could support a combined 75 aircraft (at least) depending on type and parking arrangement.

It's important to note that not all of the satellite imagery of all of the different air facilities in North Korea has been updated to include either 2016 or 2017 imagery, so it's possible there are other sites that have had revetments constructed. I just can't yet see them.

Here are some examples of these sites. Click on any image to see an enlarged view.

Since my 2015 article on the North Korean Air Force and the changes that have happened under Kim Jong Un to the physical infrastructure of the Air Force and general aviation, at least three additional runways have been constructed.

Changdo, Kangwon Province (38.67993°, 127.72681°)

This runway is also approx. 3 miles (4.8 km) north of a military training base that underwent fairly substantial expansion in 2013.

Chongjin, North Hamgyong Province (41.80234°, 129.85480°)

This small auxiliary runway was constructed in early 2016.

Sunchon, South Pyongan Province (39.44058°, 126.03576°)

This runway is being constructed across from the large Sunchon Cement Factory. Curtis Melvin at North Korean Economy Watch believes that this will be a new 'executive' runway for use by Kim Jong Un and other high ranking officials. What makes it odd, in my mind, is the fact there are two large military airbases (and a helicopter base) within 12 miles (19 km) of this new runway - after all Sunchon is an important industrial city.
Perhaps the 30 minute drive was a bit too much for the Supreme Leader.

North Korea has a history of testing missiles from their airports, particularly at Wonsan (Kalama) and Pyongyang International. During the modernization and expansion of Wonsan, an observation facility was constructed as well as two concrete launch pads on the beach. And as you can see in the opening image of this article, Kim Jong Un observed the test of a Hwasong-12 ICBM from Pyongyang International. But unlike Wonsan, the Pyongyang launch was carried out on the bare ground.

Along the line of launch pads, there has been a curious development at 19 of North Korea's major air facilities. Starting in 2015 and extending into 2016 (such a busy year), twin squares of concrete began to pop up at these airbases. Unlike the small launch pads seen at Wonsan or other sites, which are approx. 60 x 80 feet (18 x 24 meters), these new pads are each roughly 165 x 140 feet (50 x 43 meters). All but two airbases has two of these pads, one at each end and directly inline with the runway's path, but not connected to it. The other two just have a single pad. Most are made of concrete, but a few are simply areas of cleared land and compacted dirt.

My initial thought was that these were helipads, but they're much larger than most helipads in the country. Additionally, these are military bases and space already exists for helicopters. Furthermore, Pukchang Airbase (near Sunchon) has an adjacent helibase with dozens of helicopters stationed there, yet the main airbase also has these new pads. Use of these sites for helicopters is also lessened because the pads aren't directly connected to the runway and are separated from them by around 170 feet (51 m).

I am not an aviation expert, but I have explored the globe via Google Earth (and been to a few airports) and I have yet to see this layout anywhere else. My second thought then became, what if these are actually meant to allow rapid deployment of various missile systems? (Their size would accommodate everything in North Korea's arsenal.) I have asked for the input of others but wasn't able to get much more than "that's plausible", with no other firm alternative explanations. So perhaps North Korea now has 36 new ICBM launching sites, or maybe its something else entirely. The fact these things popped up across the country, basically over night, are fairly uniform in size, and are only located at major military sites, impels me to at least bring attention to them.

These two images shows the pad area at Kaechon Airbase before and after construction.

This next set of images is just a sample of different bases with the pads.

Here is the list of coordinates for each of the airbases with these pads.
Changjin: 40.36680°, 127.26304°
Hwangju: 38.65468°, 125.78629°
Hyon-ni: 38.61354°, 127.45410°
Iwon: 40.36044°, 128.71995°
Kaechon: 39.76226°, 125.91326°  (only has one pad)
Koksan: 38.68810°, 126.60147°
Kuum-ni: 38.86713°, 127.90625°
Kwail: 38.42360°, 125.02213°
Nuchon-ni: 38.23767°, 126.11891°
Onchon: 38.90914°, 125.23311°
Orang: 41.43005°, 129.64906°
Panghyon: 39.92883°, 125.20714° (Panghyon is near the site of the July 4, 2017 ICBM test)
Pukchang: 39.50491°, 125.96567°
Sondok: 39.75929°, 127.47621° (only has one pad)
Sunchon: 39.41134°, 125.89543°
Taetan: 38.13016°, 125.24616°
Toksan: 39.98743°, 127.60276°
Uiju: 40.15111°, 124.49965°

My ego isn't so fragile that I can't handle correction. If you think (or know) I have misidentified these sites or can offer a plausible alternative, please let me know!

--Jacob Bogle, 1/30/2018

Thursday, January 18, 2018

North Korea's Great Barrier

I first wrote about North Korea's caged population in 2013, where I showed the fences that surround the country. Since then, I have been able to map the full system of fences, guard posts, and gates. And since the general situation regarding population movement has changed since then as well, I want to revisit the topic and also provide you with the Google Earth file so you, too, can explore the miles of fences and blocked off beaches, as well as to provide added evidence of the horrific human rights situation that exists. If you're primarily interested in getting the KMZ file, click here.

Guards maintaining a section of border fence along the Yalu River. (Source

First, a quick refresher. Much of North Korea's coastline and land borders are fenced off. According to multiple defector and media reports, some portions of fence are electrified while others are simply guarded by police. Of course the southern border (aka, the Demilitarized Zone/DMZ) has been turned into, perhaps, the most impenetrable 820,210 feet (155 miles) of border in the world. Ever. Apart from the hundreds of thousands of troops stationed along the DMZ, it has over 1,000 observation towers and forward military posts. Finally, the border with China (and the small section with Russia) is protected by large reservoirs, rivers, and in many places, fencing as well.
The purpose of these barriers is to keep people inside the country. Construction was sped up during the famine as the regime tried to cope with the mass movements of people, risks of defectors stealing boats, and as the government struggled to maintain their control in all sectors of society.

All of this means North Korea's population really is caged. A more colorful description of the country would be as an open-air prison.

The following images show the extent of the national fence system. Click on images for an enlarged view.

I was able to map nearly 1,400 miles (1,399.36 to be exact) of fencing. There are lots of small coastline sections where the paths of fencing can still be seen, but the fence itself is gone - likely pillaged for scrap metal by locals, however, most of the gaps you can see (and all of the large ones) are due to either natural barriers or where direct access to the sea/border is blocked by an industrial site, military base, or other construction that serves as a barrier.

Many coastal towns and villages lack a fence and instead the coastal portion is lined with dockyards and factories which requires locals to go through any number of gates or checkpoints, if they're permitted through at all. I've tried to map as many gate houses as possible that provide direct access to the coast. Ones that simply allow access to a factory or other site adjacent to the sea are not marked.

This next image shows the reason for each of the the major gaps in the fence system.

This image shows 837 identifiable police border guard posts and 434 stand-alone watchtowers along the the DMZ.

Under Kim Jong Un, miles of new fencing have been erected as well as older fencing upgraded in certain areas. A large number of additional watchtowers have been added along the fence routes as well, particularly in the northern regions. However, border controls extend well beyond fences and watchtowers. Cell phone single jamming towers, cameras, and other surveillance equipment have been deployed along both borders, but efforts have particularly increased along the Chinese border (which is the route most defectors take).

A related issue is the increased border protections China has been implementing. As with North Korea, China has begun to build fences (of a far greater quality than the DPRK) along certain key border sections to stem the flow of defectors. They have also constructed signal jamming towers and increased police and military patrols. China's active attempts to catch defectors by checking train stations, setting up road blocks, and patrolling neighborhoods, occur not only in the immediate border region, but far into the interior in major cities like Jilin.

The following series of images clearly show the individual fence posts and come from different parts of North Korea. Additional images can also be found in the original 2013 post, A Caged Population.

As both Kim Jong Un and China have taken a much harder line regarding border security, there has been a real and measurable effect on the numbers of successful defections. In 2017 there were 1,127 defectors who made it to South Korea, which is a decline of 27% from 2016. That was the lowest figure since 2001. The total number of defectors peaked around 3,000 in 2009, meaning there has been a decline of ~62% overall.

Despite the barbed wire fences, guards with automatic weapons, the high risk of women being sold into sexual slavery, and the risks of repatriation and imprisonment (or execution), people still brave the cold waters of the Yalu River and the forests of northern China to find their way to a better life. Even soldiers posted along the DMZ, who tend to belong to elite families and are generally more well off than soldiers stationed elsewhere, accept getting shot at 40 times (or even kill other DPRK soldiers) to cross into South Korea.

Kim Jong Un may have been successful in curbing overall defections, but the drive to feed one's family and the desire to experience the freedoms of the outside world (that North Koreans are increasingly being exposed to) will continue to inspire and embolden people to take the risks and seek a better life.

To download the full KMZ file and explore the sites yourself, click here. (Must have Google Earth to access.)

--Jacob Bogle, 1/18/2018