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

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

AccessDPRK 2018 Update

2017 was an incredibly busy and important year for all things North Korea. From the murder of Kim Jong-nam, the unprecedented number of nuclear and missile tests, and even to the large construction projects that were seen in Pyongyang, last year certainly kept analysts and watchers chugging the coffee. Last year was also a big year #AccessDPRK: web traffic was more than double that of last year (for which I thank my readers very much!), I had the opportunity to give multiple radio interviews on different DPRK topics, social media presence grew, and most importantly, I was able to release the completed version of a very big map.
I intend 2018 to be a busy and big year, too. Let me tell you what I've been working on and about some future plans for this new year.

I published Phase I of the #AccessDPRK Mapping Project in March 2016 and Phase II was published a year later, in March 2017. Phase II became the largest and most comprehensive map of North Korea ever made public with over 53,000 locations mapped; far surpassing any previous public work. In the time since the initial publication, I have continued to highlight important and interesting finds via this blog and social media. I have also been working on the "topic specific" files that I mentioned in the Phase II release post. At the same time, I have continued work on keeping the main project up-to-date and have added scores of new sites of all types: military, monuments, and domestic.

It wouldn't quite be accurate to call this beginning a "Phase III", but I want everyone to know that I am certainly not finished with this undertaking and a true Phase III will be forthcoming at some future point. Over the course of this process I will be re-categorizing hundreds of "compounds" to reflect the greater importance they may now hold, I will be working to resolve a long-standing issue in identifying many interior HARTS locations (are they artillery sites or simply tunnels?), I will keep marking places that were inadvertently missed the first time around (like a monument or irrigation pumping station), and of course work on the topic specific files will continue.

Additionally, it's important to realize that all of the articles on this site are part of the broader #AccessDPRK project and are meant to enhance the work by giving it greater depth. There are a number of articles that I am currently drafting, and I have begun to use a range of new resources which will allow me to use more recent satellite images in a number of cases. That means I can provide you with better information and occasionally even help break some news.

Considering all of these things and the amount of time and effort it requires (I am just an individual and not backed by any organization), I am also thinking about setting up a Patreon (or similar) account to enable those who appreciate and enjoy what I produce to take part and assist. I'll have more on that later.

So I am looking forward to this new year and anticipate North Korea will provide us with ever more things to talk about and analyze. I appreciate your continued interest and all of the emails, comments, and interactions on social media. If you haven't already, please follow me on Twitter @JacobBogle and you can add me on Facebook, too. If you'd like to email me, the address is I'm always open to suggestions on what topics to cover.

Finally, here's a small New Year's Bonus. (As always, click on the image for an enlarged version.)

A small military training base was recently constructed and it is one of several to be built over the last few years.

Located 7.8 miles (12.6 km) east-northeast of Sariwon, N. Hwanghae, it is situated in a valley that also holds multiple other small military sites like tunnels and munitions/equipment storage depots. The location of the base is marked with a star icon and labeled, and all of the small yellow markers are the numerous other military sites in the region.

This next image shows the immediate area surrounding the training site. The several storage sites and tunnel group have also been marked out.

This is a 2014 image of the area, before the training facilities were constructed. Based on satellite data, the facilities were constructed between October 2016 and April 2017. I'm using a 2014 beforehand image because it's the best looking image showing the area.

In the latest satellite image, a number of changes to the old base can be seen. An assembly/parade ground has been established, new barracks constructed alongside the old observation hut, a small training site for fighting in trenches was set up, the water course has been updated, and a vehicle training course has been constructed.

Here is an enlarged version to make some of the details more visible. (Click on image for larger view.)

--Jacob Bogle, 1/3/2018

Monday, December 25, 2017

Pyongyang's Thirty Years of Growth

Image of Mirae Scientists Street along the Taedong River. (Image Source: Rodong Sinmun.)

Like any national capital, Pyongyang is a dynamic and growing city whose fortunes rise and ebb as the fortunes of domestic and international affairs fluctuate. Pyongyang was founded in 1122 BC (according to legend) and served as one of the capitals of ancient Korean kingdoms. Over the course of the Korean War, the city - like much of the peninsula - was completely destroyed. Kim Il Sung spent enormous resources rebuilding the nation and redesigning Pyongyang into a showcase capital.
The attempt to use the capital to project power and showcase the miracles of socialism resulted in massive 'people's palaces' and numerous monuments, and peaked with the construction of the Ryugyong Hotel. Construction of the hotel, which was to be the tallest hotel in the world, was halted in 1992 (it still sits unfinished to this day). The fall of the Communist Bloc between 1989-1991 and the following famine of 1994-1998 resulted in the near total collapse of the North Korean economy.

Pyongyang itself suffered stagnation and large swathes of the city degraded. In the early 2000s, as gray and black markets began to rise, so too rose the fortunes of Pyongyang and the government has since embarked on a modernization program. The process was relatively slow under Kim Jong Il, but Kim Jong Un has overseen one of the largest building booms in North Korea's history.

One good and simple measure of the growth and strength of a city is population, unfortunately, population statistics are considered a state secret in North Korea, so getting accurate figures can be difficult - especially when you consider the widely varying figures concerning the number of deaths during the famine and the fact that there have only been two national censuses since 1980. Fortunately, the use of satellite information can help fill in some of the gaps by showing which areas have undergone urban growth. Contrary to what one may expect, despite all of North Korea's economic problems and the vast sums spent on military projects, the change in Pyongyang over the past 30 years is pretty astounding. A resident from 30 years ago would scarcely recognize the Pyongyang of today.

Thanks to Google Earth, historical Landsat and Copernicus satellite imagery dating as far back as 1984 is now easily available and covers most of the planet. Using this resource one can see the growth of cities and the spread of human development; an asset for studying a large number of topics. The outlines in the images below are densely populated urban areas that are contiguous within the outlined area. In other words, if there are two urban spaces separated by a large area of forest or farmland, they won't be included within the same outline.

In 1984, Pyongyang had an urban area of approximately 70.2 square miles (+/- 1 sq. mi) and by 2017, Pyongyang's urban area had grown to 103 square miles (+/- 1.5 sq. mi). At this point it's important to make the distinction between the capital region of Pyongyang and the core city of Pyongyang proper. The Pyongyang region is 1,233 square miles and has a population of over 2.5 million. However, within the region are 19 wards and two counties, and within all of those are dozens of smaller towns and villages. One of the larger areas within the region is Kangdong, which has a population of 221,000 and is around 20 miles away from downtown Pyongyang. So when considering population and population density of Pyongyang proper, it's necessary to exclude the populations of these satellite areas.

Here is a map showing the nine largest urban/industrial areas within the Pyongyang capital region as of 2017.

Outside of the city of Pyongyang and the growth of the airport, little has changed in the expansion of other urban areas with the exception of the city of Sangwon, which largely grew up as the Sangwon mine was established and the cement complex opened (in 1989).

To determine the land area of urban spaces, I outlined the areas and cut them into easily measurable geometric shapes. The white area is Pyongyang's main urban coverage in 1984, and the yellow represents 2017. It required over 200 individual measurements. You may find some areas that look like irregularities (yellow lines inside of white areas), and that's due to the fact that the image resolution for 1984 is much lower than that of 2017, making the 1984 area slightly less precise. I have tried to correct for this.

Beyond the simple growth of urban boundaries, the density of buildings has also changed drastically, particularly in a few key areas of the city. The change in total area of Pyongyang from 70 to 103 square miles is a comparatively slow growth rate when you look at other major world cities. Even my own medium-sized town has doubled in land area over the last 30 years. One reason for this limited growth is, of course, that residency in the capital is tightly controlled and has tended to stay at 10% of the national population. Another reason is the fact that there is no private land or home ownership (officially), so there aren't the endless subdivisions of single-family houses as seen in the US and other countries.

Pyongyang in 1984 showing some of the major areas of future construction. The Mansu Street area is already under development by this time. Image based on Google Earth and Landsat/Copernicus. 

Because of those facts, most residential units are in apartment complexes and single-story multi-family houses. There are three areas that really stand out to me as seeing the most growth and change over time: Ryomyong Street (which recently was 'opened'), Mirae Scientists Street, and the Tongil Street area which has been growing for the entire 30 year period.  A quick comparison of satellite images from 1984 )above) and 2017 (below) clearly shows the expansion of these and other areas, but I will only go into detail for the three I mentioned.

Pyongyang in 2017. You can see the large amount of development in the Tongil and Kwangbok regions as well as other changes such as the construction of the Ryungyong Hotel, the expansion of the Palace of the Sun, and the May Day Stadium which was built in 1989.

I'll begin with Tongil.
Tongil Street is a major road that runs east to west on the southern side of the Taedong River. Planning for the construction of the street (and associated buildings) began in the early 1980s along with several other smaller "street projects" like An San Taek, Munsu, Kwangbok, and Yanggwang streets. However, Tongil didn't see much real construction until 1991 when a speed campaign turned the area from farmland into a booming work site.

The Tongil Street area in 2017. 

As you can see in the 1984 image of Pyongyang, nothing existed in this area at the time. Since construction first began in the 1990s, Tongil Street has undergone almost continual growth. Other areas have also grown out from Tongil and now include the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), Chollima Building Materials Factory, and the Pyongyang Catfish Farm.

Google Earth image of Mirae Street on May 10, 2001.

The next street is Mirae. Mirae runs along the northern bank of the Taedong River, across from Yanggak Island. "Mirae Scientists Street" was developed to house faculty and their families as well as various institutions of the Kim Chaek University of Technology. The development included over 2,500 apartments and boasts one of the tallest buildings in Pyongyang, the 53-story Mirae Unha Tower. However, many of the apartments on higher floors of the various buildings remain uninhabited due to a lack of electricity to power elevators and heating units, despite being completed in 2015. Additionally, the development came after a 23-story apartment building collapsed, killing dozens of people. These two factors have likely played a role in the slow pace of occupancy.

This brings me to a larger issue that plagues North Korea. The country has relied on Stakhanovite mass-mobilization speed campaigns (like the Chollima Movement) to construct large projects at a neck-break pace. From hydroelectric dams to large buildings, the government forces their completion within a year or two at most (if they get their way) when in reality, these things should take upwards of 5 or 10 years to be done safely. While Pyongyang may now be bustling with rather striking looking and shiny new buildings, the soundness of their construction and long-term safety is deeply questioned.

Google Earth image of Mirae Street on May 1, 2012. You can see some apartment buildings have been built since 2001.

Modern Mirae Scientists Street, also nicknamed "Pyonghattan".

The last major development I am going to focus on is Ryomyong Street, which was only opened in April 2017. Running roughly southwest to northeast, the street connects the 15 April House of Culture and the 92-meter (302 foot) tall Tower of Immortality with Kim Il Sung University and the enormous Palace of the Sun, which now serves as a billion dollar mausoleum for Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il's bodies. The new towers offer thousands of additional housing units.

The bright buildings of Ryomyong Street at night along with the newly renovated Tower of Immortality. (Image Source:

Kim Jong Un ordered the construction of the area's redevelopment in March 2016, meaning the multiple residential buildings (including one that has 70 floors), stores, and restaurants were all completed in less than 13 months - which again calls into question the quality and safety of the buildings. There is a second phase of the project, which is still ongoing, that is expanding Kim Il Sung University and constructing new housing further up the street. Funding for the "200 day speed battle" to build the area came (at least in part) from the government's demand that families hand over $50 to pay for it. While $50 may not sound like much to us in the West, it's enough to purchase 80 kg (176 pounds) of rice on the market. It's also the approximate equivalent of 2 weeks pay. These funds are on top of a seemingly never ending demand for "loyalty payments" and other fees citizens are required to regularly come up with.

There has also been inevitable change to the more rural areas of Pyongyang. Multiple small villages have been demolished and rebuilt along more efficient lines. Not only does this help with local housing shortages and the badly needed replacement of dilapidated homes, but the greater efficiency of the layout results in more usable farm land in the aggregate, even if it's just a few added acres here and there. 

Some of the rural areas with newer housing.

Here is a close-up example of the demolishing of a small village, with its older housing and more haphazard layout, and at the same time, the construction of modern houses in another village about a kilometer northeast.

Unnamed village in Pyongyang that was demolished in 2017.

Finally, here's a map showing many of the areas of Pyongyang that have experienced major new construction or redevelopment since 2009 (includes some industrial areas). I chose 2009 because that was the first year after Kim Jong Il's stroke and the year Kim Jong Un officially began to be groomed to take over for his father.

Pyongyang, like the rest of the country, continues to grow despite sanctions or the highly unstable and wasteful model of having parallel military and domestic economies which has governed the country since the early days of Kim Il Sung. The rise of markets and an unofficial middle class means that there is more individual interest in living in nice apartments - and that there's money to go around to make construction happen. Additionally, Kim Jong Un is keen to make his mark in all areas of concern, with major construction projects being seen in every large city across the country. Kim III will undoubtedly go down in history as the man who brought North Korea's nuclear program to completion, but he will likely also be noted for spending billions on national construction; perhaps the largest builder since his grandfather. However, history will also mark whether or not all of the energy and wealth poured into these projects was worth it, or if it had no net positive effect on the people and only served to drain badly needed resources as the skyscrapers of Pyonghattan eventually collapsed one by one.

--Jacob Bogle, 12/25/2017

Additional reading
1. 2008 DPRK Census Report (PDF)

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Possible NK Atmospheric Nuclear Test

North Korea is the only country to have tested nuclear weapons since 1998, when India and Pakistan both held their final underground tests, and all of North Korea's six nuclear tests have been carried out underground at the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site beneath Mantap Mountain (which is adjacent to the Hwasong Concentration Camp).

The firing of the Hwasong-15 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) on Nov. 28, 2017. Image from Rodong Sinmun.

Under Kim Jong Un, North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs have become incredibly advanced and the speed of their accomplishments have often taken analysts by surprise. The development of these systems has occurred under the "two-track" or byungjin philosophy which seeks to develop the country's nuclear program and domestic economy in parallel. While their economy creeks along, it is becoming apparent that their nuclear and ballistic missile programs have been able to become largely self-sufficient and are produced with indigenous materials and technology.

The September 2017 nuclear test was their largest test by far with a yield estimated to have been between 100 and 250 kilotons, which places it several times larger than the atomic bombs dropped on Japan during World War II. Furthermore, it is possible that the tested device was a hydrogen bomb and that the warhead could have a variable yield, allowing North Korea to "dial" up or down the warhead's power.

On the ballistic front, their November 2017 test of the Hwasong-15 ICBM showed that they could theoretically hit any part of the United States (and a majority of the rest of the world). While questions remain about the missile's ability to survive reentry, there is no doubt that this is a huge step forward. Its size, range, and changes to the reentry vehicle over the Hwasong-14, all point to a program that is rapidly nearing completion.

At this point you may be asking what all of this has to do with the title? In October 2017, North Korea's Foreign Minister, Ri Yong Ho, said that Kim Jong Un was committed to testing a nuclear weapon in the atmosphere. And rumors of such a test have been heard prior to this statement, too. Atmospheric nuclear testing was last carried out in 1980, by China. The US, Soviet Union, and UK each ended their atmospheric testing in 1963 with the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT).

North Korea's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in red, South Korea's in green. Data from Marine Regions.

The purpose of such a test would be, ostensibly, to prove their ability to attach a nuclear warhead to a missile and then to fire it off toward the sea and have it detonate - demonstrating they are indeed a fully capable nuclear weapons state. Any test would have to be carried out within the limits of North Korea's territorial waters, or at a maximum, its exclusive economic zone. Firing a nuclear missile outside of their EEZ would trigger a major world crisis the likes of which hasn't been seen since the Korean War.
Of course such a test (regardless of whether or not it occurred within their own territory) would likely permanently alter regional relations, could easily drive China out of whatever remaining alliance with the DPRK they have, spur Japan into full-on re-militarization, and could even lead to an attack on the North by either South Korea or the US. It's also highly unlikely that the US would sit idly by and watch as North Korea mounted a nuke onto a missile and fire it. So the chances of an atmospheric test are rather low in my estimation.

Beyond the geopolitical implications, the environmental impact would also undo progress toward addressing the radioactive genie that was released after the Trinity Test in 1945.

Atmospheric testing releases huge amounts of radiation into the environment. A 2013 study that looked at atmospheric radiocarbon showed that 2010 levels were at their lowest since the late 1950s, with the PTBT being the seminal moment when radiocarbon rates began to sharply decline.

Chart showing the percentage of Carbon-14 in the atmosphere from 1950-2010. (Source: Atmospheric Radiocarbon for the Period 1950–2010)

Above ground tests (atmospheric or otherwise) also release large amounts of radioactive Iodine, Strontium, Uranium (obviously), Caesium, Xenon, and other radionuclides. The half-lives of these materials range from a few hours (as in the case of Xenon) to hundreds of years and longer. Above ground testing can throw radioactive particles as high as 50 miles into the atmosphere where they will then be carried by the winds for many miles (with minute amounts traveling the globe) until they eventually settle back down to the ground and sea where they will continue to release radiation for years to come. Local radioactive fallout can extend in a plum easily over 100 miles long, placing each regional nation at risk of receiving fallout depending on the specifics of the test and weather conditions at the time.

All of these risks - the overt threats to South Korea, Japan, and the US, the dangers of spreading fallout over Chinese or Russian territory, etc. - are why I hold strong doubts that North Korea would ever conduct an above ground test. However, while thinking on the subject, I also considered what ground locations may exist that North Korea could use to conduct an old-school non-atmospheric above ground test.

Analysts have determined that the Punggye-ri test site may have experienced tremendous damage, particularly as a result of the latest test. While activity at other tunnels around the site has been seen, continued nuclear testing greatly raises the risk of a major collapse and release of radioactive materials. So the next best thing may be an above ground test.

Possible suitable locations for an above ground nuclear test.

I searched for the criterion of a 12-mile diameter circle (an "exclusion zone") that didn't overlap with any populated areas or, in the case of islands, that didn't overlap another island group or cross onto the mainland, and that wasn't too close to China or Russia. I was able to locate four such places. Three of which are islands/group of islets, and one is the Punggye-ri site itself. Punggye-ri is isolated enough that there are no cities or towns within the 12-mile circle and the nearby concentration camp (with its thousands of prisoners) would partially be protected from the immediate radioactive fallout effects by the mountain itself.

The other three sites are far enough away from the coast and any populated islands that the civilian population would be safe from the actual blast of a nuclear device, so long as it wasn't too large. These sites also have the added benefit of being within North Korea's internationally accepted territorial claims, which would give Pyongyang some degree of diplomatic cover.

We can only wait and see if Kim Jong Un thinks it's worthwhile to set off a nuclear device in the open, be it fired from a missile into the sea, set off on an island, or even detonated in the ocean from a barge, but one thing we can be sure of is now that he has a bomb and a missile, he won't be giving them up for cheap.

--Jacob Bogle, 12/12/2017

Additional Reading
1. Nuclear Weapons Testing and Environmental Consequences: A Global Perspective, Remus Prăvălie, February 2014 (Ambio, A Journal of the Human Environment)

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Is North Korea's Prison System Far Larger than Expected?

By now, nearly everyone in the Western world has heard about North Korea's collection of massive prison camps. There are 10 known "re-education" camps and six concentration camps in the country, all holding around 200,000 prisoners. However, there are estimates that there may be another 10 re-education camps and there are other smaller prisons as well.

Locations of North Korea's main prison camps.

An October 2017 report by The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) titled, The Parallel Gulag, details a system of prisons that operate through the Ministry of People's Security and are called "an-jeon-bu". The report focuses on 22 possible sites. But something that really caught my eye was the design of these sites.

Within the #AccessDPRK Map are over 1,000 "compounds". These are generally unspecified groups of buildings or walled-off compounds. I didn't know what they were for certain but they occurred with such regularity that I felt it was important to map as many as I could. They could be small factories, perhaps barracks or police stations, food distribution centers, or even jails. The places within the "compound" classification vary widely in their configurations, but a good many seemed to follow the same basic design.

Here are a few satellite images of sites discussed in The Parallel Gulag.

The site above was identified by HRNK as Kyo-hwa-so No. 2 and is located at 39°52'5.88"N 124°44'59.48"E near Tongrim, North Pyongan Province.

The site above was identified by HRNK as Kyo-hwa-so No. 88 and is located at  39°11'58.80"N 127°20'44.93"E between Munchon and Wonsan.

And this site was identified by HRNK as a likely jail in Sangtong-ri (40° 5'35.61"N 127°21'26.26"E) in South Hamgyong Province.

This next set of Google Earth images show a few of the "compounds" that were mapped as part of #AccessDPRK.

This is a site in Kangwon Province and is located at 39°13'41.87"N 127°20'22.79"E

Back in April 2017, I took to Twitter and asked people what they thought these places were. I received several suggestions, but most said they were probably associated with agriculture or food distribution. And we do know that grain warehouses and distribution points are well guarded. However, defector testimony has also revealed that during the famine many places were set up as detention centers to handle the huge number of orphaned children. The government simply took over any available buildings it needed and converted them to this use. They were described as little better than prisons in terms of design and security. If you have no food but need secure buildings, former food distribution centers may have filled the role. Of course how long the regime continued to use them for this purpose, or if they were changed to serve as another type of detention center isn't known.

With the publication of The Parallel Gulag, we can now definitively say that North Korea's system of concentration and labor camps, prisons, and local detention facilities is much larger than many realized. Considering I knew of so many similar facilities throughout the country, I reached out to North Korea analyst Joseph S. Bermudez (who also aided in the analysis of satellite imagery for the HRNK report). I gave him a small list of sites I had mapped and he gave me his opinion on each one. Depending on the site, he felt the group of compounds was a mix of detention facilities, barracks for local military/paramilitary units, and agricultural related facilities.

Map showing the 505 sites of interest located.

Without further study and defector testimony, we may never know precisely what each of these locations are. However, I have located 505 such sites all over North Korea, which would mean there is a full order of magnitude more of these sites than fully functional hospitals in the whole of the country. With stories of "orphan jails", the now revealed parallel system of jails, the knowledge of historical "black sites" (like "The Barn"), and the highly secretive nature of the regime, it's safe to bet that at least some of these facilities are previously unknown prisons.

Here is a map of all the sites. If you open it up in Google Maps, you can save it as a KML for Google Earth as well.

If you have any additional information on any of these sites, please let me know!

--Jacob Bogle, 11/2/17