Monday, November 11, 2019

Mystery at the National Defense University

Pyongyang's National Defense University (recently renamed the Kim Jong Un National Defense University) lies to the north of downtown Pyongyang in an area full of military and secret security schools and training centers. The NDU is located next to the Second Academy of Natural Science (which goes by several other names) as well as near the Kim Jong Il People's Security University.

The NDU has undergone several changes since Kim Jong Un's rise to power but one that hasn't received much attention is a small addition constructed in 2014. It was noted in the AccessDPRK Phase II map release in 2017, but I didn't know much about it and it lay forgotten until now.

The area in question is a small, tunnel-like structure or bunker that was set into the side of a hill. It also has an opening in the roof of the structure. 

Initial excavation work began in 2013 but the structure wasn't constructed until 2014. In Sept. 2014, apparent damage to the roof of the nearby white building was also observed. There has been a building on that site since at least 2000, however, it was reconstructed in late 2013.
To my eyes, the damage looks like there was a small explosion of some kind that blew through the roof. 

Since then, another building was constructed nearby in 2016 and an existing building was demolished in 2017. Additionally, during 2014, roughly 245 meters to the north-northeast of the bunker, a small structure was built on a hill. It resembles an observation hut, but there is some question if there is a clear line of sight from the hut to the bunker. It may just be an observation hut for activities happening in another part of the university compound that was simply constructed at the same time.

In Sept. 2019 I decided to try and solve this little mystery. I reached out to Joseph Bermudez, senior image analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and to Joshua Pollack and David Schmerler, both senior research associates at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, to see if they could lend any insight.

Not being a missile expert, my initial thought was that the site may have been a horizontal test structure for testing either small scale-models of rocket engines or to test certain pieces of technology. I came to this conclusion because A) the NDU has been involved with the development of North Korea's missile technology, B) I thought that the opening would allow engine exhaust to flow out without damaging the rest of the concrete structure, and C) because learning about complex systems require learning about the fundamentals first. As with rocket hobby groups elsewhere, the bunker could be used to familiarize students with simple examples of solid fuel rocket engines. 

Unfortunately, none of the three experts seemed to think my idea was right, and all gave their own various reasons for that. So, still left with a mystery, I asked them what their impressions were. 

Joseph Bermudez said that his initial thoughts were that it's either a small firing range for handguns or a small explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) site for "training/familiarization". He also said that the damage to the roof of the other building couldn't be positively identified without doing more in-depth image analysis, but that it didn't necessarily have to have been caused by an explosion.

I doubt that it is a firing range because many examples of those exist, both large and small, and none take on this form, but some kind of EOD site does makes sense.

Joshua Pollack also raised the possibility of the bunker structure having to do with explosives, either training or testing. David Schmerler called its utility for substantial testing/training into question because of a general lack of infrastructure to move vehicles and equipment around (access to the site is through dirt paths). However, small vehicles can make it to the site and small-scale experiments/training could be carried out.

In conclusion, there is no conclusion. While the general consensus is that it may have something to do with explosives, there still exists the questions of what kind of explosives (weapons, demolition, solid rocket fuel, etc.) and for what purpose (testing, disposal, training). As it stands, the site doesn't currently seem to be easily identifiable, it appears to be the only structure of its kind in the country, and generally remains a mystery. Perhaps as time goes on and newer images of the site become available its function will become clear. Until then, I have another North Korea Mystery to add to the list.

If you have a credible explanation (or better yet, proof) of what the site is or additional information that may be useful, please feel free to comment or otherwise get in touch.

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Kbechs87, GreatPoppo, and Planefag.

--Jacob Bogle, 11/10/19

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Recent Growth at Yongbyon

The Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center is North Korea's primary nuclear facility. It contains multiple reactors, research facilities, radiochemical laboratories, and a uranium enrichment facility.

5 MWe Magnox reactor at Yongbyon. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Yongbyon (named for the ancient nearby walled city) was constructed from 1961-1964 with Soviet assistance. It took on the style of a Cold War-era "closed city" and is cut off from the rest of the country. It lies within a secured compound covering 24.8 sq. km and is protected by 22 primary checkpoints and internal gates. It is further defended by an array of nearly 40 anti-aircraft artillery batteries which encircle the region. Over the decades North Korea, along with its foreign benefactors, has spent billions constructing the site. Based on inflation, the initial start-up costs of Yongbyon was over $4 billion (or $500 million in 1962 dollars).

While Yongbyon is contained within a defined security perimeter, it is divided internally into two main sectors: the civilian, residential area (also known as Bungang-ri) and, to the east, the nuclear facilities themselves which form an axis of distinct research and production complexes centered along the Kuryong River that flows through the area.

Over the years, Yongbyon has grown substantially. New housing, new reactors, and new laboratories keep popping up. Even when the reactors enter stages of relative inactivity, the surrounding site continues to expand. The unofficial nuclear truce between North Korea, the United States, and South Korea that the country's leaders have tried to create in recent years hasn't done much to halt the growth of Yongbyon.

Until recently, the "newest" Google Earth imagery of the area was from 2016. Reporting by groups like 38 North have noted the occasional new building being constructed over time as they have focused on specific parts of Yongbyon and purchased newer commercial images for that reporting.

Recently, however, Google Earth updated their imagery for the entire area. Dated October 13, 2019, we can now immediately observe three year's worth of changes over miles and miles of territory in and around the nuclear site. It also gives us a chance to observe changes missed by other reporting or totally ignored (such as the residential area).

After looking over the closed-city, I was able to note 23 changes in the form of new construction or buildings being repaired/renovated.
You'll note that most of the changes occurred within the residential zone and inside the administration/reactor zone (where the 5 MWe and 50 MWe reactors are located).

I'll start with changes to the residential zone (Bungang-ri).

The two main changes in this area shown is that several new apartment blocks are under construction and the road has been widened. Apartments were also built in 2016. Access to Yongbyon is severely restricted and you must have the necessary permits to live there (and must receive permission to leave). This means that any large population growth is purposeful and comes from the government bringing in new scientists, engineers, and their families.

Concerns have been raised over the years about the health and well-being of the thousands of people that live here and work at all of the various facilities. While residents receive better food rations, greater opportunities for their general advancement in life and the advancement of their children, the area is reportedly heavily polluted. In 2019, a former resident of Bungang-ri told DailyNK that,

"In other districts it is very difficult to find people with cleft lip but here there are many individuals with crooked mouths, those lacking eyebrows, incidents of dwarfism, and those with six fingers. There are even children who just look like bare bones."

Near the city center, even more apartments have been constructed. These are around six stories in height. When added to the ones discussed above, at least 300 new apartment units have been constructed since 2016. Going further back, it's likely the population of Bungang-ri has grown by 2,000-2,500 under Kim Jong Un, based on the number of apartments constructed since 2011.

Construction of the noted underground site began in 2004 and is one of several within the complex.

Population growth has led to the need to build other, non-residential buildings. At least three have been added (or are currently under construction) and there may be a fourth under construction as well. One interesting note, as gas stations have proliferated at major cities across the country, one isn't visible in Yongbyon. There are plenty of reasons why that may be, but one could be because the average citizen can't leave or go trading as easily as people outside of Yongbyon, so the regime doesn't see a need to build a fueling site for passenger vehicles.

Yongbyon's sealed nature has likely created a situation where the regime's propaganda, cult of personality, information controls, and level of market activity have all been less subjected to change or challenge verses the rest of the country.

This next image shows changes to the primary administration and research zone. Multiple structures are in the process of being constructed and at least one appears to be undergoing some kind of renovation. I have also highlighted an addition to a research facility that was built in 2016.

To the immediate north, two new structures can be seen next to the IRT-2000 research reactor building. The reactor was provided by the Soviet Union in 1965. The Soviets provided North Korea with a total of 42 kg of highly enriched uranium until 1990. Pyongyang has said that the reactor produces needed isotopes for medical research and treatments, but the reactor can also produce tritium for their weapon's program. By 2011, it was widely believed that the Soviet-supplied fuel had all been used. However, it is now suspected that the reactor is using domestically created fuel.

The garden has existed for many years and is part of the regime's mandate that military units, schools, factories, and pretty much everywhere else do their part to solve the country's food problem. The food could be eaten by those working there or it may be sold in markets to earn currency. Looking at all of Yongbyon, you'll find nearly every free space of land is being used for cultivation. If defector and witness reports are correct about major pollution, then any food grown here will also be contaminated. This echos problems seen at other nuclear-related facilities, such as the uranium mine and milling plant at Pyongsan.

Several changes can be seen at the Yongbyon reactor zone. A new office building was constructed, and two smaller support structures built. The heavy-lift crane site has also undergone significant changes.

The crane structure was first erected in 2011 as part of the construction of the experimental light water reactor. The long, angular structure could be warehouses or contain a conveyor system. This was noted by 38 North and shows that the changes began in 2017 and continued into 2018.

While there are questions about the current operational nature of the reactors, the area has been very well maintained, had new construction, and stands ready to resume work whenever the orders are given.

Between the reactor zone and the nuclear fuel production zone lies a facility for maintenance and supplies. A large new building is currently under construction there. Its size and the visible structures inside suggest that it is likely an administration building to coordinate various construction and maintenance activities around Yongbyon.

The compound holding North Korea's uranium enrichment and nuclear fuel production center has likewise seen several additions.

Two small buildings have been constructed next to the enrichment facility, a building has been added to the isotope facility (lower right), and a building that had long appeared to have been abandoned has been repaired/reconstructed.

The new building at the lower right was pointed out in a 2018 report by 38 North.

Lastly there is some construction work happening right outside of a main security compound to the east. Two buildings are currently under construction (space for a third exists but no foundation work has begun). I don't know if the site is directly related to Yongbyon but it is extremely close to the electrified fence that surrounds the complex and is next to a key entrance point.

Not only is it possible to see that many changes have happened since 2016 (which, of course there would have been), but we can see that there are structures currently and actively being built. All of this points to an active city with a growing population, improved research and production capabilities, and is substantial evidence that North Korea isn't giving up on their nuclear program anytime soon. The continued mining and milling of uranium at Pyongsan, the fact that almost every building along the 17-km stretch of Punggye-ri still stands, and new progress toward creating submarine-launched ballistic missiles paints a picture very different than the one promoted by various media and political outlets.

Handshakes, signatures on paper, and hope all must give way to what is actually happening on the ground. And what is happening on the ground is telling.

This report also speaks to the ongoing need for continuing updates to Google Earth and other freely accessible products that give access to satellite images of the globe. Buying enough commercial imagery to cover all of Yongbyon can run into the thousands of dollars and places restrictions on research. While commercial entities enable individuals and news and research organizations to look at very recent images of specific sites, which does provide immense value, it also places limits on more comprehensive research into larger areas and often means that a good deal of North Korea gets overlooked.
However, so long as Google Earth (and even general map providers like Bing) continue to provide the world with their services, the democratization of research can continue. Be it looking into North Korea, changes to the Amazon rain forest, new internment camps in China, or the agricultural outputs of France, the world relies on open access to information.

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Kbechs87, GreatPoppo, and Planefag.

--Jacob Bogle 11/1/2019

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Missile Bases & Major Underground Sites

North Korea is perhaps the most militarized country in history. As a country roughly the size of the US state of Pennsylvania, it has literally thousands of distinct military sites: air defense, training bases, coastal artillery batteries, airbases, missile sites, tunnels, and much more. Because of the country's nuclear program, their missile bases receive a lot of attention. However, there is still a lot that is unknown about these sites, in part, because North Korea has only officially acknowledged a handful of them (and often just in vague terms).

The satellite facilities at Sohae, Tonghae and the Chiha-ri missile base are fairly well known, but the good folks over at Beyond Parallel (part of the Center for Strategic International Studies) estimate there may be as many as 20 undeclared ballistic missile bases and related support facilities. The 2017 release of "Phase II" of the AccessDPRK mapping project listed over 9,500 military points of interest, and since then, I have begun work on the next part of the map which now includes an additional 1,500 military sites. Using this unpublished version, I decided to see what likely missile bases and large underground facilities exist in the country. (These stand-alone underground facilities are something Beyond Parallel isn't looking at.)

After going through every identified military base, tunnel, underground facility (UGF), known and suspected missile base, and other sites, I was able to locate 18 known and possible ballistic missile bases, the two satellite launch stations, and 39 large UGFs that are separate from the missile bases.

North Korea considered the creation of a ballistic missile program soon after the Korean War and it became an official goal as early as 1965, with Kim Il Sung saying the country needed to have rockets that could fire as far as Japan. From then until the early 1980s, the regime laid the foundations of the program including the acquisition of Soviet and Egyptian technology. In 1984 they were able to test their first indigenously produced missile which was a variation of the SCUD-B.

The height of their missile program came with the first internationally verified successful orbital insertion of a satellite into space in 2012, the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Unit 2, followed by the 2017 test of the Hwasong-15 missile which can reach nearly all of the United States.

The vast size of North Korea's missile program infrastructure (dozens of locations in a country the size of Pennsylvania) helps to ensure that they can continue to carry out attacks if one or several bases are destroyed during a war. It also makes it all the more difficult for Western powers to keep track of the movement of weapons and equipment.

North Korea's ballistic missiles and ranges. Image from the Center for Strategic International Studies

By 2017 the country was thought to have around 900 short-range missiles, though that figure may have grown to 1,000+ with the apparent development of a North Korea-produced clone of the Russian Iskander missile. (As well as from the continued production of known missile systems.)
Short-range missile are typically defined as having a range of 1,000 km (620 miles) or less. Examples include the KN-02, Hwasong-6, and the aforementioned Iskander clone.
Medium-range missiles have a range of 1,000-3,000 km (620-1,860 mi). Examples include the Rodong-1 and Pukkusong-2 (KN-15). North Korea likely has 500 or fewer of these missiles.
Intermediate-range missiles can reach 3,000-5,500 km (1,864-3,418 mi). An example is the Hwasong-12. There are likely fewer than 250 IRMBs.
ICMBs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) have a range exceeding 5,500 km (3,400 mi). North Korea's Hwasong-15 is their latest developed ICBM. There are probably fewer than 75 operational missiles in this category.

The country's missile bases are divided into three main "belts". They are, with increasing distance away from the DMZ the, "tactical belt", "operational belt", and "strategic belt". The different belts reflect the types of missiles deployed at each base, with the strategic belt holding long-range missiles (this includes the submarine base at Mayang) and the tactical belt being the site of shorter-range missiles aimed at the DMZ, Seoul, and other important South Korean sites.

Pyongyang's missile program is under the control of the Korean People's Army (KPA) Strategic Forces and the construction of the bases is done by KPA Unit No. 583 (the Military Construction Bureau). Substantial construction began for many of the bases in the late 1980s to mid-1990s, and construction at all sites had either already began or was scaled up by the 2000s. Several ballistic missile bases, such as Chiha-ri and Yusang-ni, have had upgrades since Kim Jong Un came to power.

A note on naming. Unless a name has been given in an official North Korean or US-ROK alliance intelligence source, all of the locations talked about in this article are otherwise named for the nearest populated place as listed by OpenStreetMap. A lack of standard naming has led to confusion for years, but that's one thing this article seeks to remedy. And, instead of simply saying "a base in Chagang Province" or "by Kimchon-ni" (when there are multiple villages with the same name), this article will list the base's exact coordinates.

These twenty main facilities occupy approx. 362.5 square kilometers of territory. Despite my best efforts, I wasn't able to positively identify the To'gol base (allegedly in Pyongsan County) or the Kittaeryong base (in Anbyon County).

Within the "tactical belt" are:

1. Chiha-ri - Coordinates are: 38°36'10.63"N 126°44'12.20"E
2. Kal-gol - Coordinates are: 38°40'3.15"N 126°44'49.97"E
3. Kumchon-ni - Coordinates are: 38°57'54.14"N 127°36'8.48"E. Kumchon-ni has been detailed by Beyond Parallel.
4. Sakkanmol - Coordinates are: 38°34'59.81"N 126° 6'29.91"E. Sakkanmol has been detailed by Beyond Parallel.
5. Sing'ye - Coordinates are: 38°38'24.31"N 126°40'48.26"E. Sing'ye is one of the smallest missile bases in the country. It may also be the source name for the Hwansong-class of missiles as a nearby village is named Hwasong, and the base was constructed early on.
6. Suthae-ri - Coordinates are: 38°22'51.67"N 127°29'0.55"E. Suthae-ri is a possible base and hasn't been mentioned in any media that I could find. At less than 10 km from South Korean territory, it would be the closest ballistic missile base to the DMZ. The base doesn't have the "drive thru" bunkers that many other known bases have, but it does have a large and expanding underground facility and several bunkers of other types.

Chiha-ri, Kal-gol, and Sing'ye are all within 5 km of each other, which would lead me to believe that they are connected in some way; perhaps in mutual-supporting roles.

Within the "operational belt" are:

1. Hodo - Coordinates are: 39°24'30.31"N 127°32'5.63"E. The Hodo base is very small and is more for testing missiles than as an operating base during conflict. Hodo seems to have replaced the beaches at Wonsan for testing sort-range missiles, as the site at Wonsan is now a cluster of hotels.
2. Hwajil-li - Coordinates are: 39°11'52.58"N 125°23'56.93"E. Hwajil-li is listed by the Nuclear Threat Initiative as a missile base that was constructed in the 1980s. Current satellite imagery doesn't show anything that would suggest the site is currently used as a missile base. A basic air defense battery and associated facilities is all that exists today.
3. Ongpyong - Coordinates are: 39°19'33.69"N 127°19'50.68"E. It is a smaller base and its facilities may be dispersed throughout a larger area.
4. Singsong-ri - Coordinates are: 39°21'32.23"N 125°45'49.57"E. Singsong-ri is a possible base. Like Suthae-ri, it doesn't fit the design of a lot of other known bases, but it does have three underground entrances which run deep into a mountain. If it is indeed a base, it's likely used to store missiles and equipment.
5. Yusang-ni - Coordinates are: 39°26'51.58"N 126°15'30.33"E. Yusang-ni has been detailed by Beyond Parallel.

On average, the land area used by these bases is smaller than bases in the other two belts.

Within the "strategic belt" are:
This belt includes the country's two satellite launching stations as they have played a role in the development of ballistic missile technology and could be used as launching sites.

1. Hoejung-ni - Coordinates are: 41°22'21.64"N 126°54'46.14"E. Hoejung-ni is one of the newest missile bases to be constructed. It is only a few kilometers from the base at Yeongjo-ri
2. Kusong-ri (alleged) - Coordinates are: 39°59'51.22"N 124°34'16.80"E. According to Jane's/IHS, this surface-to-air missile base also houses some Nodong missiles.
3. Riman-ri (Yongnim) - Coordinates are: 40°29'2.94"N 126°30'1.65"E
4. Sangnam-ri - Coordinates are: 40°50'20.20"N 128°32'35.82"E. Sangnam-ri has been detailed by Beyond Parallel.
5. Sinpo-Mayang - Coordinates are: 39°59'42.09"N 128°11'43.98"E. Sinpo houses part of a large submarine base (the other half being on Mayang Island) and has a missile test stand. The base is where North Korea is developing their submarine launched ballistic missiles.
6. Sino-ri - Coordinates are: 39°38'57.32"N 125°21'36.37"E. Sino-ri has been detailed by Beyond Parallel.
7. Sohae Satellite Launch Center - Coordinates are: 39°40'6.88"N 124°42'30.44"E
8. Taegwan - Coordinates are: 40°18'34.10"N 125°16'17.02"E
9. Tonghae Satellite Launch Center - Coordinates are: 40°52'13.09"N 129°38'34.10"E. My discovery of a missile test stand being constructed at the site was the basis of my very first #AccessDPRK post back in 2013.
10. Yeongjo-ri - Coordinates are: 41°19'44.56"N 127° 5'35.38"E. Once considered a nuclear site, Yeongjo-ri is actually a missile base.

The next area I want to explore is the collection of large underground facilities (UGFs).

As mentioned earlier, these UGFs are not part of any obvious missile base. Underground sites abound in North Korea and serve as active and reserve storage sites for weapons, equipment, food, and other supplies, and they allow for artillery to be fired and then rolled back into the tunnel for protection against counter strike. There has been a lot of speculation about the number of tunnels and underground sites within the country with some estimates going as high as 100,000. Based on the work for AccessDPRK, the real figure is much closer to 1,000 sites (some may have multiple entrances, but they're part of a single facility). Most of them are small and some are used as underground factories. But there are a few dozen (39 to be exact) which are much larger than any of the others (excluding underground industrial sites).

Some of them are placed at military bases and consist of a single complex while others exist as clusters, especially in Pyongyang.

There are four UGFs in Chagang Province.
1. Oil-rodongjagu UGF - 40°59'53.82"N 126°46'51.12"E
2. Janghang UGF - 40°57'32.66"N 126°41'9.98"E
3. Kanggye-Puji UGF - 40°53'12.75"N 126°38'4.45"E
4. Jonchon UGF - 40°32'49.08"N 126°19'48.21"E. This facility is across from the Riman-ri (Yongnim) missile base and so may be connected to it in some way.

There are three UGFs in S. Hamgyong Province.
1. Toksan UGF - 40° 1'52.84"N 127°35'48.28"E
2. Sinphung UGF - 39°58'7.64"N 127°50'17.89"E
3. Songhung UGF - 39°22'54.97"N 127°10'43.71"E

There are five UGFs in Kangwon Province.
1. Chongdu-ri UGF - 38°22'2.71"N 128° 2'20.19"E
2. Wondong-ri UGF - 38°24'51.14"N 127°41'59.76"E
3. Konsol-li UGF - 38°29'30.47"N 127° 0'7.53"E. The UGF here is part of a new military base that was constructed in 2016-2017.
4. Jisang-ri UGF - 38°34'44.13"N 126°44'5.59"E
5. Kubong-ri UGF - 38°37'44.89"N 126°43'15.55"E

There are four UGFs in N. Hwanghae Province.
1. Phyongwon UGF - 38°46'42.16"N 126°27'47.77"E. This has a very large UGF and might actually be part of their missile infrastructure.
2. Taephyong UGF - 38°26'5.60"N 126°20'37.53"E
3. Misan-ri - 38°34'41.50"N 125°56'6.04"E. This is a set of two enormous bunkers.
4. Okhyon - 38°22'4.16"N 125°44'22.81"E

There are 23 UGFs in Pyongyang. Eleven of them are in three clusters. Each cluster will only get one set of coordinates.
1. Pyongyang Group 1 - 39° 5'58.09"N 125°49'48.07"E. There are three large tunnels/entrances that spread out in an east-west line approx. 1 km long.
2. Pyongyang Group 2 - 39°10'11.96"N 125°51'28.16"E. This is a set of five large tunnels that are along a valley between two sets of hills. From the coordinate given, a rectangle is formed by a line running 1.4 km west to east and then from that point, north to south for ~0.5 km.
3. Pyongyang Group 3 - 39° 5'54.07"N 125°57'1.50"E. This is a group of three tunnels that are all located within the same hill, encircling it.
4. Pyongyang Single UGF - 39° 6'43.85"N 125°58'24.30"E
5. Taedonggang Large UGF - 39°10'25.07"N 125°56'43.60"E
6. Taedonggang Smaller UGF - 39°10'31.77"N 125°56'46.76"E
7. Samdung UGF - 39° 1'32.28"N 126°12'56.77"E
8. Rodgon-ri UGF - 38°57'54.22"N 126° 2'27.51"E
9. Sangwon UGF - 38°49'39.49"N 126° 5'23.32"E
10. Chunghwa UGF - 38°52'28.51"N 125°48'23.32"E. This UGF is within the Air Defense & Combat Command HQ complex.
11. Sunwha UGF - 39° 0'52.08"N 125°36'15.03"E
12. Kanchong UGF - 38°51'34.16"N 125°33'15.48"E
13. Kangso 1 - 38°52'55.87"N 125°30'57.91"E
14. Kangso 2 - 38°52'46.98"N 125°31'48.32"E

Here are a few examples of these underground facilities.

Patreon Special Access
Patreon supporters at the $20 tier are entitled to exclusive data sets. The Google Earth file for this post is one of those exclusive offers. This is the only nationwide map of these facilities within the public domain that contain accurate geolocation data and additional information. The file also has over 300 specific sites of interest within the various missile bases for your research pleasure. Please consider supporting me on Patreon and get access to this and other exclusive data sets.

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Kbechs87, GreatPoppo, and Planefag.

--Jacob Bogle, 10/22/2019

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Air Defense and Combat Command HQ

Situated in the town of Chunghwa, south of Pyongyang, North Korea's air force headquarters is located at the "Air Defense and Combat Command" (from here on abbreviated KPAF HQ). From here, over 110,000 personnel, 1,700 aircraft, and 37 key bases (along with less important ones) are overseen by a headquarter complex that is nestled within a range of low hills.

Little is directly known about the complex, but based on Landsat/Copernicus satellite imagery, we can determine that the headquarters has been in this location since at least 1984. Unfortunately, the image resolution is very low but you can still make out lighter colored man-made structures against the darker, tree covered hills.

North Korea's air force, the Korean People's Air Force (KPAF) is divided into six primary combat, training, and transport divisions.

  • 1st Air Combat Division (headquartered at Kaechon)
  • 2nd Air Combat Division (headquartered at Toksan)
  • 3rd Air Combat Division (headquartered at Hwangju and is responsible for the DMZ)
  • 5th Air Transport Division (headquartered at Taechon)
  • 6th Air Transport Division (headquartered at Sondok)
  • 8th Air Training Division (headquartered at Orang/Hoemun-ri, is also responsible for defense of the northeastern part of the country)

Within the divisions include associated forces like airborne (which has at least seven training bases) and reconnaissance. The KPAF has also had a drone (UAV) program since the 1970s.
The use of drones continue to be of concern to South Korean and Allied forces, particularity after multiple sightings of North Korean UAVs and incursions into the DMZ and ROK airspace. Small UAVs flying at under 500 feet are capable of avoiding most radar and air defense systems, leaving South Korea vulnerable to the asymmetric capabilities that UAVs bring to the battle space.

The first clear look at KPAF HQ comes from imagery dated November 2006. (Click on any image for a larger view.)

The eastern quadrant of the base holds storage bunkers and a possible underground entrance. There is also an old hardened artillery site just outside of the base's perimeter.

Between 2012 and 2013 a new building was constructed next to the Juche Study Hall. It's likely a gymnasium due to the recreational sports fields next to it. A crisp image of the building can be seen on October 26, 2015.

Since 2006, thirteen buildings have been constructed within the complex.

Construction of the newest buildings began in 2017. They lie at the rear of the base (due north), and include three, three-story residential buildings, a possible new assembly building, and another large building with an unidentified purpose. These buildings are in the same area as an underground entrance which itself saw construction work in 2011.

The underground site could be part of building an underground command center but there's no real way to know what the current purpose of it is or its status.

The regime has been placing a lot of effort into modernizing their conventional forces as well as their nuclear program. Today's KPAF HQ is a much different place than it was in 2006, with most of the changes happening under Kim Jong Un.

Despite having a dated air fleet, Pyongyang is creating indigenous air defense systems, they are working on ways to avoid sanctions on fuel, and they are trying to computerize as much as possible. This means that a modern headquarters is needed to oversee an adequate defense structure while also maintaining their abilities to carry out offensive war plans should they determine the time has come.

I want to give a quick shout out to my Patreon supporters: Kbechs87, GreatPoppo, and Planefag.

--Jacob Bogle, 10/14/2019

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Missiles and Monuments

North Korea has been touting itself as a strong, powerful, socialist nation for generations. That propaganda, however, has largely been devoid of reality. That is, until the newest incarnation of the divine Paektu Bloodline arrived to save the people of North Korea. Whatever caricatures may exist of Kim Jong Un being a squat, little "rocket man" with funny hair and whatever very real criticisms exist of the terrible human rights situation in the country, the fact is undeniable: Kim Jong Un has fulfilled the nation's long promoted promise of turning North Korea into a nuclear-armed state with a credible missile deterrent.

While the country has had a missile program for decades, the main propaganda surrounding those developments were limited to posters, songs, and "documentaries", even when progress was made under Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. However, satellite imagery shows that Kim Jong Un feels he deserves something more long lasting, something written in....stone.

Kim Jong Un has tested more ballistic missiles than both of his predecessors combined, and key milestone launches have now been commemorated with monuments of stone. These monuments center on launches carried out in 2017, North Korea's "miracle year" in which they tested missiles capable of hitting all parts of the United States and tested their largest nuclear bomb to-date.

There are five of these launch commemorations known, with the latest one being under construction as of May 2019. The fact the regime is still building these monuments may contradict their claims to have accomplished a nuclear deterrent (at least to their satisfaction) and contradict occasional claims that the government will begin to move away from the "two track" system (developing the economy and nuclear weapons in tandem) to focus on the economy, as it shows Pyongyang is still placing a new level of emphasis on these weapons. (Not to mention all of the other worrying signs that North Korea has no intention to denuclearize.)

I want to give a quick shout out to Joseph Bermudez and Victor ChaJeffery Lewis, and Dave Schmerler for their respective work on individual monuments.

1. Missile tested: Pukkuksong-2. Date: Feb. 12, 2017. Location: Iha-ri driver and vehicle test facility,  40° 0'47.38"N 125°13'22.21"E.

The dimensions of the monument space is roughly 24 m x 19 meter, while the monument itself is a small stone about 2.5-3 meters.

The location of the monument is actually ~320 meters away from the launch site. The test stand that was used was one of the sites demolished in hopes of helping relations between North Korea and the United States.

2. Missile tested: Hwasong-12. Date: May 14, 2017. Location: Kusong, No. 112 Factory, 40° 3'56.61"N 125°12'34.45"E.

The monument foundation first appeared in October 2018. The fact it hasn't been completed by now suggests the work has been suspended for some reason. The concrete pad is approximately 27 meters long. The wider section (left-side) is 10.5 meters wide and the thinner, longer section is about 8 meters wide. Some of the commemorative monuments incorporate the launching pad itself into the overall monument site, so the thinner, longer section could be it.

3. Missile tested: Hwasong-14. Date: July 4, 2017. Location: Panghyon Aircraft Factory, 39°52'19.48"N 125°16'10.85"E.

The test happened within the grounds of the Panghyon Aircraft Factory, some 6.5 km southeast of the Panghyon Air Base. Kim Jong Un called the test a "gift to the American bastards" on America's Independence Day.

A second monument was constructed at the observation post located a kilometer away, but it was later demolished. Currently, this is the only stone monument at the site. Across from the monument, up the hillside, is a slogan sign that was also erected after the test. Unfortunately, the image isn't of sufficient quality to know what the sign says.

4. Missile tested: Hwasong-14. Date: July 28, 2017. Location: Mupyong-ni, No. 65 Factory,  40°36'39.56"N 126°25'32.92"E

The location of this launch may be referred to as Mupyong-ni, which is the name of the local village, Jonchon, which is the name of the city this is in, or Factory No. 65, which is the name of the missile factory the launch actually took place in.

5. Missile tested: Hwasong-15. Date: Nov. 28, 2017. Location: Near Pyongsong, 39°18'58.25"N 125°52'58.08"E.

The Hwasong-15 missile is North Korea's longest-range missile that has been tested. It is theoretically capable of hitting nearly all of the US mainland. Not surprisingly, the monument to the launch is the largest of the five.

Including green space, the monument's area is 75 x 61 meters. The launch site occurred 4 km north of the March 16 Factory in Pyongsong. The factory produces a wide array of military vehicles and supports the missile program by either manufacturing or modifying launch vehicles. According to 38 North, "it was revealed that the building and temporary shelter were used to modify the Hwasong-15 TEL and test the operation of its elevation cradle and detachable launch table for the November 28, 2017 test launch."

One thing that I have found interesting is the variety of locations where North Korea has tested missiles. Factories, fields, vehicle test ranges, beaches, air ports, and even places that are actually dedicated to missile launches like at Hodo. These tests are not only to show that the country has the needed capabilities to successfully launch them, but the range of testing locations is a none-to-subtle message to the world that they are able to do so from any part of the country, not just from military bases or sites with purpose-built infrastructure.

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Kbechs87, GreatPoppo, and Planefag.

--Jacob Bogle, 10/1/2019

Monday, September 16, 2019

The Great Songwon Mystery

I have a page of "mysteries" for the #AccessDPRK Mapping Project. They're sites that I either don't know what they are, can't firmly identify, or would like more specific information on (like different palaces). One of those sites is in North Pyongan Province and it has a tunnel, water running out of it, and an electrical substation. Obviously it's a hydroelectric plant, right?

The problem is that there isn't a dam or reservoir nearby, neither is there a gravity-pump setup. So where's the water coming from?

I sat with this little mystery for a few years because there was no obvious source of water. Could it be some secret underground facility and the "stream" coming out of it is just drainage? North Korea does have plenty of those, but then other aspects of the site didn't really make sense for it to be an underground military base or factory. So, as I said, I sat with the mystery.

I was recently researching some of the country's large dams and came to Songwon Dam in Chagang Province, about 42 km away from the first site. Every source that mentioned Songwon said that it was a hydroelectric dam. There's one problem with that. Songwon doesn't have a hydroelectric generator, not even one downriver like many other hydroelectric sites do. Now I'm sitting here with a hydroelectric dam with no generator in one province and an apparent generating site with no dam in another province.

The next step was finding out that the apparent mines in the area form a lovely 42km-long straight line from Songwon directly to the mystery site. In fact, they're not mines at all, but the excavated debris from one heck of a tunneling project - a tunnel that takes water from the Songwon reservoir and to the hydroelectric generating site. Thus, Songwon is a hydroelectric dam. It just makes its electricity in the neighboring province. Songwon was completed in 1987 and Landsat/Copernicus satellite imagery also shows construction work happening at the "mystery site" in 1987, too, further verifying their connection. A happy little mystery is now solved.

It seems like North Korea isn't done creating these huge tunnel systems. There's the newly finished Wonsan People's-Army Power Station in Kangwon Province. It, too, has a tunnel taking water from the reservoir to a generating station that, in this case, is 28 km away.

Having the generating site farther away from the dam means that you can get a greater change in elevation which will increase the water's speed as it moves downhill. The faster water moves the more momentum it has, and that means it can turn turbines faster, generating more electricity. If a dam is 200 feet above sea level, you'll get a lot more electricity generated if you have the generating station at 30 feet above sea level vs. at 150 feet by making that water drop 170 feet instead of just 50.

The Wonsan dam is at 1,800 feet and the first generating station (there's two) is at about 680 feet, a massive drop. However, they could have achieved the same amount of elevation drop using a tunnel 10 km shorter if they went toward a different direction. The same is true of Songwon. From the intake site to the generating station there's a ~560 foot drop...spread out over 42 km! In the case of Songwon, that elevation drop could have been accomplished by placing the generating station 25 km downriver.
However, the tunnel would not have been able to be in a straight line, making construction more difficult. It appears that the Wonsan tunnel could have been in a straight line to reach the shorter distance, so I don't know why they opted for the longer journey instead.

The next image is a picture of an intake tower with a similar layout as the one at Songwon. The "window" on the tower is to let air in to prevent a vacuum from forming and damaging the system.

Water intake tower at the old Desna Dam, Czechia. Source: Wikimedia.

The last thing I'll say about Songwon is that even though the reservoir is massive (it covers 18.3 square km and has a capacity of 3.2 billion cubic feet of water according to the FAO), the amount of water coming out of the generating station is very small. The size of the electrical substation is also rather tiny compared to the ones at other large dams. This is because the water intake point is actually at the surface level of the reservoir. If the reservoir is even slightly low, water wont flow into the tunnel to turn the generator. This means that despite the enormous effort North Korea put into constructing everything, it doesn't seem to be generating much electricity in return. Of course, North Korea isn't exactly known for their efficiencies - be it efficiencies in design, labor, or cost, the regime really seems to like expending huge effort for little gain.

I want to give a quick shout out to my Patreon supporters: Kbechs87, GreatPoppo, and Planefag.

--Jacob Bogle 9/15/2019

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Punggye-ri Nuclear Facilities Still Stand

North Korea tested their most powerful nuclear device on Sept. 3, 2017. The bomb was estimated to have had a yield of between 100 kt and 250 kt, which is the upper reach of the test mountain's ability to contain the explosion. In other words, a larger bomb could have destroyed the mountain (Mt. Mantap).

After the test, the world seemed to be bracing for a war between the United States and North Korea. What happened next made history. In November North Korea stopped every kind of test related to their WMD programs: ballistic missiles, nuclear, everything. The North also took the unprecedented step of blowing up the tunnels (also called portals) used to test their nuclear devices at Punggye-ri in May 2018.

While many hailed this decision, others pointed out that the much promoted "destruction" only destroyed the portal entrances. There's no evidence the vast tunnel system beneath Mt. Mantap was destroyed. This left open the opportunity for the site to be reclaimed once the small amount of debris was cleared out. According to a statement from the Institute for Science and International Security by David Albright:

"North Korea’s action is better than a freeze and represents a disabling of the test site. However, like many disabling steps, North Korea could likely resume testing at the site after some weeks or months of work. Although the main mountain is unlikely to be usable, other nearby mountains could be used. And two of the portals (numbers 3 and 4, using North Korean nomenclature) were apparently intact and usable for further nuclear explosions prior to the dismantling steps conducted."

Despite that warning, relations continued to thaw. And then on June 12, 2018, a sitting American president and a leader of North Korea met in person for the very first time. The Singapore Summit was short on details and formal disarmament agreements, but North Korea maintained its own nuclear and missile testing moratorium for a year. However, since Nov. 2018 (a year after tests stopped in 2017), the country has tested over a dozen short-range missiles during seven different launching events.
Additionally, after dismantling a test stand at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in June 2018, the test stand was reconstructed in 2019. Oh, and let's not forget the continued production of uranium at the Pyongsan uranium milling plant.

So what do the resumption of missile testing and the reconstruction of weapon sites have to do with Punggye-ri?

This image shows the north portal as it was in 2015. All of the various buildings are standing and the site is operational.

The below image is after the May 2018 demolition. You can see that the portal area has been disturbed by the explosions and the support buildings are gone.

Free open-source satellite imagery from Google Earth shows that while some of the tunnel entrances were indeed destroyed, the entire rest of the nuclear complex is still standing. This strongly suggests that North Korea was never serious about engaging in any activities that would substantially or permanently disable their ability to develop and test nuclear weapons or long-range missiles. It also backs up what David Albright (and others) have said, North Korea could rather easily resume testing if they desired.

Punggye-ri is located in North Hamgyong Province and lies adjacent to the Hwasong concentration camp. (I raised concerns about prisoners being used for slave labor at the site back in 2017.)
Starting at the small village of Punggye-ri, the testing complex runs over 17 km north along a river valley that eventually leads to the base of Mt. Mantap, where the tunnels are and the testing occurs.

This series of images will take you from the tunnels (portals) and down along the valley until reaching the train station. They will show, without doubt, that other than the initial demolition of select facilities near the portals, the entire complex still stands.

As of March 2019, all of the sites within the northern administration area are still standing, including the checkpoint.

About 700 meters to the south of the northern administration area is a set of barracks. There hasn't been any change to them since the May 2018 "shutdown".

Further south is the second security gate. Maintaining these internal security points (which are north of the main entrance location) would not be necessary if the facility was permanently decommissioned.

Still moving south, 5.8 km away from the second gate, is another set of barracks and support buildings.

This southern area has barracks and a set of agricultural buildings. Portions of the valley are used to grow the crops eaten by the personnel stationed at Punggye-ri. Lush fields of various crops can be seen on an image dated October 11, 2018. Five months later and the fields are resting for winter and the buildings still stand as seen in the above image.

The southernmost part of the testing complex is the central administration area. It deals with logistics, supporting overall operations, and manages personnel housing. It, too, is fully intact.

Finally, there's the train station and main gate.

If the site had been permanently closed, it makes sense that the gate would remain to prevent people from walking into a dangerous area, however, when its existence is combined with the rest of Punggye-ri, it leaves little doubt as to its continued survival as a future nuclear testing site. Additionally, the train station hasn't been altered in any way. The civilian village of Punggye-ri only has a few hundred residents, the train station would only need to keep one of its two platforms to maintain domestic rail service.

The unchanged status of Punggye-ri has been further verified with newer imagery from DigitalGlobe as recently as July 2019 by 38 North. Two years on from their last test, the site's continued existence calls into question the wisdom of increasing funding by over 10% of the Inter-Korean Cooperation Fund, to hit a total budget of $1.18 billion. The fund's purpose is to help establish peace and grow economic ties between the two countries. However, North Korea has a history going back decades of defaulting on loans, stealing equipment, demanding even greater payments, and commandeering joint projects (like the industrial site at Kaesong.) They do this while surreptitiously continuing their weapons program and engaging in countless illicit acts to bypass sanctions and earn even more foreign currency.

Punggye-ri's ability to be quickly restored, the reconstruction of the Sohae missile launch site, the repeated missile tests resuming in 2018, and Pyongyang's massive infusion of cash into their conventional forces are all none-to-subtle hints that they will not stop being a threat, no matter how earnest the Moon and Trump administrations would like to make friends.

I would like to thank my Patreon supporters:  Kbechs87, GreatPoppo, and Planefag.

--Jacob Bogle, 9/3/2019