Friday, April 10, 2015

Mapping Progress Update #6

It has been nearly a year since my last full update on my progress on mapping the whole of the country, and progress has been great.

A year ago I had mapped 10,000 sq. miles, or 21.48% of the country and I had around 5,500 military, domestic, economic, and propaganda places marked. It took me around a year to get to that point (remembering of course that I wasn't doing this every single day, and I'm still not always able to work on this).

Today, I've mapped out 26,137 sq. miles (56.15%) of the country (which is 46,541 sq. mi. in size). Of that, 8,219 sq. mi. has been mapped just since the start of 2015. My productivity has greatly increased since I decided to set a completion date: Dec. 31, 2015. And that includes combining my finds with the extensive original work of NKeconomywatch and Google Earth user "Planeman_".

To finish this year, I need to map an avg. of 78 square miles a day. So far, I'm averaging 83. That places me 5 days ahead of schedule right now and puts me on target to finishing 20 days early by year's end. Of course, something could happen and my average rise or fall.

As noted in an earlier update, to help with effective mapping, I divided the country into sections covering (roughly) 25 square miles. This map shows each section that I have mapped. The elevation is set so that each dot is 5 miles in diameter, thus, mostly covering the areas I have fully mapped.

Click for larger view.

In terms of items marked: 18,657 total items; 3,221 military (inc. DMZ, Airports & Road Blocks), 4,140 monuments, and 11,103 domestic & economic locations. Here are the specific numbers for a few select items: 389 anti-aircraft batteries which represent about 1,900 individual guns, 327 communication/cell towers, 364 electrical substations, and 145 town markets. I've also mapped out hundreds of miles of new roads, main irrigation canals, coastal fences, and border fences.

Included under the "military" heading are, 461 additional places along the DMZ, 140 DMZ related road blocks, and 76 airports, heliports, and aviation test facilities (6 hadn't been located before).

I've also marked all 23 current and former border crossings, twenty of which connect with China. Plus, 159 key mountains & local geographic high points.

Here's a few images to give you an idea of what all I've mapped.

All 76 aviation facilities. Click for larger view.

Electrical Substations of North Pyongan Province. 

Cell towers of Pyongyang. 

North Hwanghae Province's Anti-Aircraft Artillery Sites.

The red dots represent HARTS (Hardened Artillery Sites) in South Hwanghae Province near the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. On Nov. 23, 2010, North Korea bombed the South Korean island with 170 shells & rockets. Four were killed and 19 injured.

---Jacob Bogle, 4/10/15

Monday, March 30, 2015

Major Landslide in North Hamgyong Province

Looking at imagery from Myongchon County, North Hamgyong Province (near the Mt. Chilbo National Park), I found what seems to have been a major landslide.

Due to North Korea's mountainous terrain and frequent floods, landslides are a fairly common occurrence, but this one consisted of a 900 foot high hillside collapsing.

Here's the area on June 19, 2011:

And after the landslide in 2013:

The crest of the hill is 894 feet above the valley floor below. The width of the collapse is nearly a kilometer, at 3,000 feet. It also interrupted normal runoff and thus created a small new lake (right-side of collapsed area). The lake covers about 4 acres (1.6 hectares). The exact coordinates are:  41° 7'33"N 129°30'39"E.

Here's a side view of the area before and after the event:

In June of 2011, there was major flooding in South Korea that also affected parts of North Korea. While it's impossible to tell when exactly this landslide occurred given available information, it's conceivable that the flooding in 2011 played a role.

The Mt. Chilbo area is a very popular tourist destination and is also an important ecological region. According to UNESCO, it holds 16 endemic plant species, 30 endangered plant and animal species, and has 132 medicinal plant species. The geologic origins of the Mt. Chilbo area come from volcanic eruptions relating to the Paektu Volcanic Zone (though, this particular area hasn't been volcanically active for millions of years). 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Kumgang Airbase Update

Three years ago, a new airbase appeared in a mountain valley 10.4 miles (16.7 km) west of the city of Chanjon, and 5.3 miles (8.9 km) north of the smaller town of Kumgang, Kwangon Province.

Changjon has had a number of improvements since 2005, including a new golf course, and a renovated harbor. It's also home to a naval base. Of course, Kumgang is nearby the very popular Mount Kumgang park.

The airbase was built between 2010 and October 2012. It has a 3,275 foot (1 km) long single runway and basic support facilities. It replaces the much smaller grass airstrip that once served the Kumgang area.

Here are the exact coordinates: 38°42'5"N 127°59'45"E (link opens Google Maps).

(Click image for larger view)

The facility has several aircraft dispersal pens, bunkers for either storage or maintenance, and 3 small fuel tanks. It will likely be used for civilian purposes, but as it stands, it can be considered primarily a military asset given its structure. 

Despite being fairly new, and the levee built to divert the nearby river (North Korea has built many runways very close to rivers, which doesn't seem prudent), the place seems somewhat deserted and has been flooded at least once.

Also, between 2007 and 2012, the surrounding area saw some upgrades too. A new communications tower was built as well has new housing.

There are no defensive artillery emplacements (that I can find) which typically guard airbases of this size, but there are a few small military units up and down the valley. The town of Kumgang itself, though, is protected by 3 anti-aircraft artillery emplacements which contain a combined 18 guns.

When it comes to completing projects, North Korea can accomplish seeming wonders in a short time (except the Ryugyong Hotel, and the fact that most things aren't built very sturdy), but when it comes to making good use of them, things tend to take a while. 

The newest images freely available date to October 2013, but given that so much effort is being placed on Pyongyang and Wonson, I don't think the Kumgang area will see much more activity for a while.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

North Korea's Stealth Ship-s

In February 2015, North Korean state media released images of their newest naval asset - a stealth ship.

DPRK Stealth Vessel

Media outlets around the world reported on the "official" recognition of the craft, however there's definitely more than one.

The vessel, which is similar to a hovercraft (something the North Koreans seem to be fixated on), features an angled hull and other features which help to scatter radar. You'll note the similarities in design between the small North Korean ship and the British HMS Daring destroyer seen here:

British HMS Daring

These "surface effect ships" use hovercraft technology to reach high speeds without the need to decrease the weight of needed weaponry.

North Korea has been trying to modernize its military for two decades, but change comes slow to an overly bureaucratic nation severely low on funds. 

The specific ship reported on has been known since 2009, when it was visible on satellite imagery of the Munchon Naval Base (11 miles north of Wonsan).

Ship onshore in Munchon, 2009.

However, after reviewing images from Wonsan (and comparing image dates), North Korea has at least two of these vessels. Both ships can be seen in their respective docks on images dated 10/3/2009.

Wonsan ship. 

The Wonsan ship can actually be seen on images dating as far back as 2002.

This class of vessel is armed with two 30mm automated close-in weapon systems (CIWS) which is based on the Soviet AK-630, four indigenously-designed 14.5mm rotary cannons, a new surface-to-air missile system, plus two mounts for two of the lethal anti-ship missiles. The key weapon system is the Kh-35 anti-ship missile system.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

New Airbase Near Panghyon

While I was continuing my mapping project, I found quite a surprise. Six miles (9.7 km) north of Panghyon Airport, near the town of Kusong in North Pyongan Province, is a brand spanking new air facility.

Here's the exact coordinates: 40°00'42.0"N 125°13'09.0"E (link opens Google Maps)

(Click for larger view.)

It has a little over 3,000 ft (914 m) of runway space and features two helipads. At the moment, it also has six bunkers (one of which is a large rectangular structure in the center of the runway) and the image suggests there will be two more.

Imagery dated May 27, 2014 shows that this airbase was created by Oct. 21 and was likely done as a military "speed" campaign.

(Click for larger view.)

Here's another view of the facility.

(Click for larger view.)

(Click for larger view.)

As the above wide-view satellite image shows, this new facility is surrounded by military units ("people" icons), artillery positions (red "A" icons), as well as other military locations and factories (hexagon icons).

According to the Federation of American Scientists, the region around Kusong is a "significant military industrial area" with multiple munitions plants. Some of North Korea's uranium mines also lie near the city and the facilities around Kusong played a role in the development of North Korea's nuclear program. Taechon Northwest Airfield also lies 8 miles (12.9 km) to the east.

Here are some additional close-up images.

(Click for larger view.)

(Click for larger view.)

I also want to note that this new airfield lies less than 20 miles (31.5 km) from the abandoned Taechon 200 MWe Magnox Nuclear Reactor and 33 miles (53 km) from the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center.


After discussions with experts, it is unlikely that this is a normal, everyday-use military facility. It may well be part of their growing drone program or is some kind of engine testing facility. 

Monday, November 3, 2014

New Road Construction in Kim Jong-un's Korea

Construction is currently underway for at least 170 miles of new paved highways (with more extensions planned). This is on top of the completed highway projects since 2005 which has made transportation between North Korea's major cities much more rapid.

Due to the lack of equipment and fuel, most of these roads have been built using manual labor (primarily by college students and soldiers) supplemented with decades old machinery.

(New roads outlined in bold white lines. There are undoubtedly more roads being constructed, the ones marked are just the ones I have found.)

Of the two longest new highways I've found, one runs north to south, connecting the port cities of Wonsan (pop. 335,000) and Hamhung (pop. 770,000). The second runs east to west and will help tie the core of the country to the expanded trade route with China via the New Yalu River Bridge (whenever it's completed).

The Wonsan highway will play a key role in Kim Jong-un's desire to turn the relatively quiet city into an international tourist destination. Wonsan already has a botanical garden, an 8,000 ft long runway, and several palatial vacation communities for North Korea's elite. It's also just a couple hours away (by car) from the famed Diamond Mountain (Mt. Kumgang) region.

(Highway construction progress.)

(Wonsan, park & docks. Click for larger view.)

(Wonsan, sea-side hotels. Click for larger view.)

(Wonsan Botanical Gardens. Click for larger view.)

(Wonsan, elite beach homes. Click for larger view.)

And finally, to the north-west, the New Yalu River Bridge.

Construction began in 2010 with China providing the bulk of financing (roughly $360 million USD) and materials. The causes of the delay in completing and opening the bridge have been North Korea's failure to meet its financial obligations, rising tensions between China and the DPRK, the re-directing of materials provided by China (for the bridge) to other projects around North Korea (projects wholly unrelated to the bridge), and the other usual mismanagement and glacial bureaucratic speed with which North Korea has become synonymous.

Whenever the bridge does open, it has the potential of greatly boosting trade and providing the country's economy with a much needed infusion. Whether or not the bridge can be allowed to fulfill its expectations is another matter. 

Sunday, June 8, 2014

North Korea's Beauty & Untouched Wilderness

There is no doubt, North Korea is unlike any country on earth. Its heavily regulated society and militarized southern border has actually resulted in some of the most pristine wilderness areas in the modern world outside of the vast tropics. Unfortunately, many of these areas are under threat. I'd like to show you some of these amazing, if not always intentional, wilderness areas.

Korean Demilitarized Zone

DMZ outlined in yellow.

Apart from providing relative military stabilization, the DMZ has also created an unintentional nature preserve 155 miles long and 2.5 miles wide. Not only is it nearly impossible to traverse the DMZ because of the high risk of being shot, the zone also has roughly 1 million landmines left over from the Korean War which makes human movement all the more dangerous. This has meant that the 387 square mile region has been left nearly undisturbed for 60 years, with the exception of two very small villages (one of which is fake and the other, on the southern side, has a population of 218). This has allowed nature to reclaim the area and bounce back not only from three years of devastating war, but also from thousands of years of human settlement and movement. To quote Don Oberdorfer in his book "The Two Koreas", "This pristine nature preserve marks the most dangerous and heavily fortified border in the world."

The DMZ from the ground.

Within the boundaries of the DMZ there are 2,900 plant species, 70 mammal species, 320 types of bird, and over 80 species of fish. Some of the more interesting creatures include the Asiatic black bear, leopards, and lynx. There are also several animal species that only live within the DMZ. The DMZ plays host to countless numbers of birds each year as they migrate throughout eastern Asia and Japan. Approximately 1/3rd of all Red-crowned cranes (their entire wild population is less 3,000) use the DMZ during migration.

Pair of Red-Crowned Cranes in flight.

There are several organizations who are tying to have the DMZ, or at least parts of it, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve. Author Alan Weisman has said of the area within the DMZ, "it has inadvertently become one of the most important wildlife conservation sites in the world.” There are, however, several major obstacles in the way of preserving the DMZ, not least of which are the ever increasing levels of pollutants due to substantial urbanization occurring in areas adjacent to the zone. And, the only way for the full area to be protected is for the North Korean government to cooperate with the South which offers its own difficulties. Tourism to the zone, over 1.2 million people annually, accounts for 20% of South Korea's foreign visitors. If the zone were to be made into a nature preserve, it would be a boon not only to tourism and the economies of both countries, but could help bring the two Korea's back together because of the necessary steps needed to actually accomplish the goal of preserving wildlife within the DMZ.

National Coastal Fence

Dotted along the fence are small "border guard" shacks like this one.

As I've talked about before, most of the country is surrounded by a fence system. Most of the coastal fences were built during the famine, ostensibly to protect the fishing industry, but most likely (according to testimonies) it was done to prevent people from fleeing the country as well as "stealing" fish. This system, which includes the border fences with China, Russia, and South Korea, runs for thousands of miles, and long segments are actually electrified. The fence doesn't run uninterrupted, there are plenty of breaks to allow fishermen access to the sea (usually requiring them to pass through guarded gates), areas too rugged to need any fence, and places where the fence has either been torn down by locals needing wire or from the simple decay of time and weather.

This draconian system has resulted in vast stretches of undisturbed beaches and pockets of forested land in an otherwise barren environment, as huge portions of the country have been denuded of trees for agriculture and fire wood. The distance between the fence and the sea can range from 50 feet to over a thousand. Depending on the measurements, this thin green line actually adds up to several square miles (4 to 25) of relatively untouched territory. The key in all of this is coastal.

Notice the difference in tree density on either side of the fence.

From the destruction of thousand year old sand dunes, to rare plant species, to animal breeding and feeding grounds, coastal regions the world over are under constant threat. This small strip of land provides a protected zone for wildlife relatively free from those threats.

Untouched Forests

3D satellite imagery of ~100 square miles of forest. Nothing but a few footpaths traverse the area.

North Korea had vast forests until the 1980s, when drastic changes caused a dramatic decline in both the quantity and quality of forested areas. According to the World Bank, North Korea's forests covered 46% of the country in 2012, down from 53% in 2003 (compared to ~33% forest cover in the US). The amount of forest is due to the mountainous nature of North Korea, which is actually partially to blame for the decline in forests. All land belongs to the government and its use is tightly controlled. Only 22% of the country's land is arable, meaning that the government has undertaken a number of steps to increase agricultural production by cutting down forests to make room for farming. The poorly planned nature of these schemes has led to denuded hillsides surrounding every inhabited area which, in turn, cause devastating flooding and landslides each time a major rain occurs and that happens often).

Landscape of North Korea.

Despite this, there are still plenty of forests and unlike regions in Russia, China, and South America, where illegal logging and settlement have wrecked havoc on many the forests there, the tight controls on movement and land use has resulted in some spectacular stretches of forest. Of those, around 9.3% are old growth forest (the US has less than 2%). Unfortunately, the remaining forests are being cut down at an ever increasing rate and their future is in great doubt.

National Parks

Beleive it or not, North Korea has several national parks. The primary parks are: Baekdu-san (Mount Paektu), Ch'ilposan, Lake Bujo, Myohyang-san, Geumgang-san (Kumgangsan), and Guwol-san.

The Mt. Paektu region has the world's highest plant diversity in such a cool and temperate environment. It is also home to a few endangered Siberian tigers (with a global population of under 1,000).

A pair of Siberian Tigers.

Mt. Paektu, or Baekdu, is the highest mountain in North Korea at 9,003 ft (2,744 m). It lies on the border between the DPRK and China and is considered, by both Koreas, to be the legendary ancestral home of the Korean people. The volcanic mountain, with its deep blue crater lake (called "Heaven Lake") and snow capped sides plays an important role in North Korean propaganda as well as the country's personality cult. The North claims that Kim Il-Sung launched his "victorious" strike against the imperialist invaders from a secret base on the side of the mountain and that his son, Kim Jong-il, was born near the lake (despite actually being born in Russia).  The lake even has its own lake monster, the Lake Tianchi Monster, which was first reported in 1903.

A view of Heaven Lake.

Pilgrimages to Mt. Paektu are very common, with each citizen generally expected to visit the site at least once. China has sought to have the mountain designated as a World Heritage Site, although this attempt has been controversial. Regardless of the ever complex political scenery, satellite imagery of the mountain and surrounding areas shows that the pristine nature of the site is under severe threat, especially from logging (although North Korea agreed to prevent logging, they have clearly failed to do so) and the increasing levels of development for the North Korean elite's vacationing. Moreover, even the park & border guards - which are supposed to be among the most loyal - are having to poach and kill wildlife in order to survive since they aren't receiving enough supplies from the government.

The image below shows the Mt. Paektu region. The mountain is in the upper left corner, the yellow line is the China/DPRK border. The brown outline, encompassing roughly 250 square miles, outlines forested areas that show very clear signs of logging. The red markers are military sites, the rest show the positions of villas and the primary leadership compound with an entire support village next to it, as well as other locations.

Click for larger view.
Mount Kumgang

Mount Kumgang, or "Diamond Mountain", is a 5,375 foot (1,638 m) high mountain just a few miles from the DMZ. It lies within the 205 square mile "Mount Kumgang National Park" and began as a joint-venture with South Korea to improve relations and tourism. The Park has been heavily subsidized by South Korean companies (as well as the government), but has been closed for several years following the killing of a South Korean tourist by North Korean guards. Currently, only tours operated on the North Korean side are permitted, making the Park effectively out of reach for most western tourists and South Koreans (who made up the bulk of visitors).

Mountain view. Image source Flicker.

Despite the current situation, Mount Kumgang remains one of the most beautiful places in North Korea. Roughly 96 square miles of the Park have been recognized as an "Important Bird Area" by BirdLife International because it supports Red-crowned Cranes. The mountain itself is made up of granite and diorite which has been exposed over the eons. This weathering has created over 10,000 interesting stone formations and countless waterfalls.

The very famous "Nine Pools".

A beautiful scene from one of the lakes. Source Flicker.

The Kuryong Falls are a striking feature. They drop 246 feet to Kuryong Lake, which according to legend, was the home of nine dragons that defended the mountain.

Kuryong Falls.

The Park contains mixed broadleaf and coniferous forests.

The Park abuts the Sea of Japan, and contains several lagoons. Of them, Samil Lagoon is by far the most lovely.

View of Samil Lagoon.

While portions of the Kumgang tourist region are under threat from continued development, the heart of the area, namely the mountains, do seem generally free from settlement and deforestation. It is truly the Diamond Mountain. 

Image notes: pictures come from Wikimedia Commons or compiled from Google Earth unless otherwise noted.