Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Markets Still Grow Despite Economic Headwinds

Researching North Korea's economic development is always fraught with difficulties. The state offers very little in the way of concrete data, and state media predominantly focuses on single items (like a factory or amusement park being built) and gives exaggerated reports on national trends. At least, until Kim Jong Un came to power. 

While the amount of reliable information is still sparse, Kim Jong Un has broken with tradition and hasn't been afraid to speak openly about the difficulties facing the country. He has even blamed the bureaucracy itself on occasion instead of always chalking up problems to sinister western forces or on a single bad administrator.

Pyongyang Central District Market. Yonhap, 2006.

It is clear that the people's lives have improved since the days of Kim Jong Il but to what extent that trend has carried on into the last few years is murky and appears to be fairly uneven. How much the civilian and military economies have undergone structural changes under Kim Jong Un is likewise murky. However, all one has to do is pull up Google Earth to see billions worth of construction activity over the years, and to examine their missile tests to tell that Kim has certainly surpassed his father in the military sphere. 

Now, before you start accusing me of calling Kim Jong Un a reformer, I'm not. But it is irrefutable that his governing style - while still autocratic - is somewhat different from that of his father's. Many of the obstacles and opportunities facing this generation are also fairly different than the ones facing the famine generation, so, naturally, the economic dynamics are going to change.

Markets for things like handicrafts has always been allowed in North Korea, but markets for selling grain, consumer goods, etc. were forbidden. That all changed during the course of the famine when farmers' markets popped up along roadsides across the country as people picked survival over obeisance to the state. In turn, the government has sought to regulate them (thus giving tacit approval to their operation), and according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the state earns between $60 and $70 million annually from fees and taxes imposed on the markets as of 2018. Over the past decade or so the number of approved markets has roughly doubled, and as of this year, I have been able to identify 443 of them. 

This implies a fairly robust civilian economy, even if it is faced with numerous obstacles (particularly in 2020 as the result of COVID-19 and after multiple typhoon impacts). Specifically, the service sector, retail, and construction have all been growing drivers of the economy for at least a generation.

How much of this can be attributed to the fact Kim was left an "inheritance", reportedly worth up to $5 billion, that he was able to invest in weapons and economic construction, how much is due to illicit trading activities, and how much may be due to a civilian economy that has become even more market-oriented despite the regime's protestations can't fully be known. Regardless, the results are the same.

To demonstrate that the civilian economy is still growing despite internal and external economic pressures (including sanctions), I want to show some changes that can be seen in 23 markets across the country. (A list of these markets can be found at the end of the article.)

These changes have all taken place from 2015 to 2019 and includes markets in major cities and in more rural areas. The changes are: the building of entirely new markets and the expansions of existing ones.

Since 2015, at least thirteen new markets have been constructed with a combined area of approximately 47,271 square meters (508,820 sq. feet) of new selling space. The largest of the new markets was constructed in Chollima (Kangson) in 2019 and ranks among the largest markets in the country, covering 15,920 sq. m (171,361 sq. ft.).

Google Earth image showing the recently constructed market. An overflow crowd is also visible.

Additionally, since 2015 at least eight other markets have undergone relatively substantial expansions and two more were converted from open-air markets to being housed in buildings. Between the expansions and added covered floor space, the total additional area equals 18,906 sq. m (203,502 sq. ft.).

The result of these changes is that there has been an increase of 66,177 sq. m (712,323 sq. ft.) worth of market space in just four years.

According to CSIS, the largest market in the country generates the equivalent of $36/sq. m in revenue to the government each year. If we make a simple assumption that these new spaces will generate only $15 per square meter, that still represents nearly an extra $1 million a year going to Kim Jong Un's coffers (solely from fees and taxes at the markets). The regime generates additional revenue through the process of transporting goods, trading permit fees, paying bribes to border guards and officials, etc. 

The fact new markets were also built after 2017, when economic sanctions against North Korea reached their height, tells us that the country's domestic economy and illicit trade is likely more robust than is generally thought. 

This is backed up by Panel of Expert reporting by the United Nations that claims the country could be illegally importing three to eight times the amount of petroleum products it is legally allowed. That also helps explain how the regime has been able to build scores of gas stations in recent years which are estimated to consume the equivalent of the country's entire legal fuel import amount. Other illicit trading involves coal, seafood, and even sand exports.

And while COVID-19 has placed a tremendous strain on the economy, North Korea is still managing to build the largest hydroelectric project in its history, construction of the Pyongyang General Hospital is nearing completion, and the capital has embarked on a housing building boom.

Additional projects like multiple small hydroelectric dams, large collective farms (such as the Jangchong Vegetable Farm), and various construction projects that can be found in most medium and large-sized towns, all point to a country that is not stationary. 

Clearly, the misallocation of resources on things like nuclear weapons and future missile tests places a burden on economic growth. And the extremely poor state of the country's electrical grid, transportation system, and healthcare network means the country is in many ways still trying to fully recover from the downfall of the 1990s, but economic progress can nonetheless be seen.

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Amanda O., Anders O., GreatPoppo, Kbechs87, John Pike, Planefag, Russ Johnson, and Travis Murdock.

--Jacob Bogle, 9/14/2020

The 13 newly constructed markets are located in: Chollima (38.931° 125.561°); Jonchon (40.616° 126.459°); Kag'am-dong (39.565° 125.851°); Kangdong-Pangwha (39.161° 126.023°); Kimchaek (40.674° 129.181°); Kumya (39.540° 127.246°); Samjigang (38.412° 125.691°); Nampo A (38.753° 125.396°); Nampo B (38.735° 125.418°); Pyongsan A (38.335° 126.393°); Pyongsan B (38.327° 126.412°); Riwon (40.319° 128.663°); Sariwon (38.509° 125.767°)

The 10 expanded markets are located in: Chollima (38.928° 125.560°); Chongjin (41.790° 129.767°); Chongju (39.696° 125.219°); Hamju (39.855° 127.435°); Kangdong (39.138° 126.094°); Koksan (38.782° 126.669°); Sin'gye (38.500° 126.524°); Songang (37.887° 125.154°); Wolthan (41.413° 127.057°); Wonsan (39.175° 127.378°)

Friday, August 21, 2020

Renovations at Elite Hot Springs Appear on Hold Due to Economic Pressures

While Kim Jong Un was busy issuing orders to reconstruct the city of Samjiyon, to build kilometers of beachfront resorts in Wonsan, and constructing a new hot springs facility in Yangdok, he wasn’t going to neglect Onpho in the process.

Nestled in a valley a few kilometers northwest of the city of Kyongsong in North Hamgyong Province, the Onpho Holiday Camp, a hot springs resort, has been popular among the country’s elite for decades.

The original facilities at the Onpho hot springs resort as seen on Sept. 29, 2017. 
It is one of the oldest and largest such facilities in the country and has been visited by each generation of the Kim family. It is so popular to the elites that a secured villa complex was built next to the general spa area and a special “leadership train station” was added around 2010 to allow for speedy and secure transportation to the relaxing hot springs and mountain air that flows down into the valley.

However, during Kim Jong Un’s visit to Onpho in July 2018, he lamentedits very bad condition, saying bathtubs for hot spring therapy are dirty, gloomy and unsanitary for their poor management.”
By October, Google Earth images revealed that the resort was being renovated as temporary worker’s housing was visible as well as the land being cleared for new buildings.

Initial work activity at the resort in October 2018, with various temporary structure like worker’s huts and workshops visible.
After that initial activity, construction slowed down and little had been accomplished five months later in March 2019. That lull quickly changed as by September, at least fourteen buildings were under construction in the main resort area and a dozen multifamily housing structures were also being constructed across the river for employees of the spa.

During Kim Jong Un’s 2018 visit he mentioned that the bad condition of Onpho would “commit a sin” by drawing criticism from the people in a place that was so important to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Testifying to Onpho’s importance, it has an entire park and monument dedicated to the “exploits of the great leaders” with regard to the establishment of the resort.

The historic importance of the resort was commented on by the Korean Central News Agency back in 2015 when they stated that Kim Il Sung had visited the natural hot springs at Onpho as early as 1946 and ordered it be turned into a holiday camp. He then visited and gave “field guidance” a further twenty times, followed by visits by Kim Jong Il including one trip in 2008 after the area had been hit by flooding.

Kim Jong Un has made it a key feature of his rule to (attempt to) improve international and domestic tourism by spending hundreds of millions of dollars – perhaps a billion or more in total – constructing numerous tourism related facilities across the country including a $35 million ski resort, converting the Wonsan-Kalma area into a major tourist region (which included an estimated $200 million reconstruction of the Kalma International Airport), and more recently, discussing the need to modernize the Mt. Kumgang Tourist Zone that was opened as a joint project with South Korea back in 1998.

All of this, of course, despite the fact that North Korea doesn’t have hordes of foreign visitors to fill up those thousands of hotel rooms now available nor does it have a strong enough domestic economy to sustain all of the resorts with predominately local tourists.

However, the fact that Onpho plays a role in the Kim family personality cult and that it has been a longstanding feature the state could point to as evidence of Kim Il Sung’s love for the people, it makes sense that Kim Jong Un would want to renovate such a place that had become dilapidated.

Unfortunately for the regime, economic pressures don’t care about prestige projects and there has been very little new construction during all of 2020 as late as July.

The combination of existing economic problems and the added pressures relating to the COVID-19 pandemic have caused considerable difficulties for the country. As a reflection of this, it was reported by DailyNK on April 23 that the regime sent out a jointly signed document by the Cabinet and Central Committee of the Korean Worker’s Party decreasing the number of “national construction projects” from fifteen to just five.

While the report didn’t say what those fifteen projects were, two of the remaining ones are undoubtedly the Pyongyang General Hospital and the Tanchon Hydroelectric Project. Both have experienced funding and material shortages, with Kim Jong Un lashing out at officials over mismanagement regarding the hospital’s construction.

Onpho may be an ideologically important site but it isn’t fundamental to the country’s health or electricity needs, so the lack of construction this year may well be a reflection of economic problems and the April “joint decision document” cutting back on less practical projects.

The one area inside the large resort complex that hasn’t seen any renovation, somewhat conspicuously, is the leadership villa compound adjacent to the main spa facilities. This walled compound contains a primary palace building and six smaller villas.

The villa compound at Onpho.
After Kim Jong Un came to power, he wasted no time making improvements to a number of leadership residences including the addition of runways (such as at Hyesan and Changsong), he completely rebuilt villas within the “Forbidden City” district in central Pyongyang, and he undertook multiple changes to the Kim family primary Ryongsong Residence complex.

Nonetheless, what can be seen from commercial imagery does show substantial changes occurring at the holiday camp area. In addition to the hotel buildings (each around seven-stories tall) and new personnel housing, three unidentified but large buildings are also under construction. Located on the banks of the river, the three buildings have a combined footprint of approximately 6,814 square meters and are each multistory buildings.

Google Earth image showing the status of renovations on October 25, 2029.
Image dated July 2, 2020 showing only limited construction progress since 2019 except for the apparent completion of the new monument and museum park.
Additionally, a new monument area has been constructed that, as of the most recent Google Earth imagery, has two monuments and two buildings that are likely “revolutionary history museums” dedicated to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Such monuments and museums are common to ideologically important places and places that have received multiple visits by the leadership. And in true North Korea fashion, this portion seems to be the first new part of Onpho to have been completed; the final landscaping touches being visible by July 2, 2020.

Construction may have been stalled due to unforeseen events, but the addition of Onpho to the long list of recreational facilities that Kim Jong Un has either built or modernized shows that “bread and circuses” are still a central tenet of his regime. From diplomatic maneuvers to testing missiles, to spas and rebuilt towns, every dictator needs a well-rounded legacy to go along with the less-than-voluntary labor it often takes to build these places.

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Amanda O., Anders O., GreatPoppo, Kbechs87, Planefag, Russ Johnson, and Travis Murdock.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

History of the Musan Iron Mine

The Musan Iron Mine sits atop one of the largest iron deposits in northeast Asia and has been an integral part of North Korea's industrial base since the country's inception. Exact estimates vary but the open-pit mining complex holds at least 1.5 billion tons of economically viable ore (with total reserves estimated at around 7 billion tons). As such, interest in Musan goes back generations, with the first industrial-scale mining beginning in 1935 during the Japanese occupation. 
Post-famine problems meeting production capacity have had ripple effects across North Korea's economy and its ability to carry out major construction projects.  

Operations at Musan mine. Image source: Wikimapia.

The mine has rarely operated at full capacity but did run relatively smoothly during the first few decades of North Korea's existence. Since the economic collapse of the 1990s and the country's subsequent inability to ensure constant electricity supplies and maintain or replace needed industrial equipment, operating capacity has bounced around from 60% to as low as 30%. 

Pyongyang's COVID-19 mitigation measures have complicated the mine's operations and further limited income from iron ore trading. The long-term effects of these measures on both the mine and the economy as a whole have yet to be fully realized, but until North Korea can improve the mine's output or shift operations to another, more productive mine, the country will be seriously stunted in its ability to continue to engage in large-scale construction projects simultaneously like the Pyongyang General Hospital and Tanchon Hydroelectric Project.

Early history

As noted earlier, industrial mining operations began in 1935 by the Japanese company Mitsubishi Mining Co. The initial operating capacity for processing the ore concentrate was planned to be 500,000 metric tonnes annually. In 1942 that was increased to 1 million tonnes and an even larger plant was under construction in 1945.

From 1940-45, the mine was able to produce 3,838,454 tonnes of ore concentrate at an average iron concentration of 58% elemental iron. Obviously, Japan's loss in World War II and the subsequent division of the Korean Peninsula interrupted mine operations. 

This 1952 geologic map shows the area of iron deposits (darkest regions). From "Mineral Trade Notes", US Bureau of Mines, 1952.

The area of heaviest deposits in this 1952 map covers approx. 247 square hectares (0.97 sq. miles). 

Musan under Kim Il Sung

Nationwide, the mining sector in northern Korea underwent a drastic decline from the end of WWII through to reconstruction after the Korean War. The new North Korea that emerged afterward placed modest goals for mining in their first economic plans. Musan was expected to produce 400,000 tons only by 1956, less than the realized average of 639,000 tons annually from 1940-45.

Under Japan, northern Korea had largely been seen as a source of raw materials. Kim Il Sung sought to address that "colonial lopsidedness" by emphasizing machine productions. After years of interruptions, war, and flooded mines, the need to get Musan (and the whole mining sector) back up was never more important if Kim Il Sung was to realize his goal of turning North Korea into a powerful industrialized country. 

To fulfill plans to produce 6.1 billion won (~$5.08 billion[1]) worth of machinery in 1956, the state would need every kilogram of iron it could find.

The 1960s was a period of substantial economic growth, albeit, not without its problems. Nationally, 1960 saw the production of 3.11 million metric tons of iron ore and steel. That grew to 4 million tonnes in 1964. 
Steel production grew at 13% a year and for the 1971-76 Six-Year Plan, the regime wanted to increase output to 3.8 million tons annually. During this period, Musan was providing at least two-thirds of all iron mined in the country.

The bulk of the ore was sent to steel mills at Chongjin and Kimchaek. At the same time that mining and milling operations were growing, trade in iron and steel was also growing. Throughout the 1960s trade increased from $34 million in 1961 to $56 million in 1969, with 400,000 tons of ore shipped to China in 1966 alone.

By the end of the 1971-76 economic plan, prospects for continued growth in mining and steel milling looked good, although the industry was heavily reliant on Soviet help for technical and mechanical assistance and on China for raw materials involved in ore processing and steel production.

Later Operations

Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, national iron production continued to grow until its peak in 1985 at 9.8 million tonnes. From there, it declined precipitously reaching a low of 2.9 million tonnes in 1997. This decline coincides with the faltering trade between Soviet Bloc countries and North Korea (largely caused by Soviet attempts at reform and demanding repayments of debt), the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union, and finally, the famine that began in 1994. 

Environmental factors also played a role as floods damaged mines across the country and severely limited their ability to extract minerals. Many mines were completely shut down and those that kept functioning operating at severely decreased capacities, not least because the workforce struggled to keep working in the face of starvation.

Musan Iron Mine as seen from Landsat in 1984.

Musan Iron Mine as seen via Google Earth in 2019.

After reviewing the available information specific to Musan, I don't think the mine has ever recovered its full operating capacity since the 1990s nor has it been able to sustain long-term growth in production. The reasons for this are manifold: electricity supply problems, lack of modern mining equipment (most machines are 40-50 years old and older), the state's insistence on cutting corners regarding safety that leads to delays with each accident, and obviously, ever tightening international sanctions regimes play a role. 

However, as the two above images show, the mine has very visibly grown between 1984 and 2019, and had tripled in size between 1970 and 2007. The large difference in size from 1952 to present likely reflects attempts to recover lower quality ore that lies outside of the primary deposit as well as improved geophysical surveys revealing more iron deposits throughout the area.

As noted before, the production rate of Musan fluctuates wildly, with the mine only operating at 30% in 2006. To boost production, North Korea has looked to joint ventures with a number of foreign companies. The largest deal was inked in 2005. The agreement with a consortium including the Chinese Tonghua Iron & Steel (Group) Co. Ltd. would have provided $867 million for a 50-year exploration rights deal. 
The goal of the plan was to increase iron production from less than 3 million tonnes in 2004 to 10 million tonnes in 2010. However, the plan was abruptly canceled in 2009 by North Korea.

Other endeavors to increase investment in the mining and steel industries (which have a mixed track record of success) include negotiations with Global Steel Holdings, Sinosteel Corporation, and a deal with Shougang Tonggang Group managed to yield a $2.2 million investment in a small steel factory.

The overall results of these deals on North Korea's mining industry and on Musan in particular have been hard to quantify and various reports coming out of the country tell a story of continual shortages.

More recently, the addition of UN sanctions in 2016 and 2017 (UNSCR 2270 & 2371) prohibited the importation of machinery and the export of minerals like iron. When taken in combination with other sanctions (from the UN, EU, and United States) nearly all forms of legal financial investment in the country have been cut off.

Levels of illicit trade from Musan managed to continue until North Korea closed its borders due to COVID-19, when all forms of trade fell dramatically. However, that trade hasn't been enough to offset either the sanctions or the chronic electricity and infrastructure problems the country has yet to overcome. 

Throughout the problems facing the mine and its workers, the miners continue to push on with their work. While it is primarily mining blocks No. 1 and No. 3 (out of seven blocks) that are kept operational at any given time, there is evidence that the regime is trying to expand those primary blocks and to open new sites along the mountain range in which Musan sits. New mining sites have either been opened or are currently being explored at three different locations along an 8 km line extending north of the main mine.

One such operation occurred in January 2018, when 450,000 cubic meters (approx. 1 million tonnes) of overburden was blasted away to expose more ore. 

Lastly, while Musan lurches between higher levels of activity and near shutdowns, one thing that has remained constant is pollution from the mining, processing, and storage of the ore as well as from the general operational requirements of such a large mine. 

River pollution from North Korea's mining, manufacturing, and electricity sectors has been a longstanding problem, and the Musan Iron Mine has been recognized as a major contributor of pollution along the Tumen watershed.

The water treatment systems along the 8.5 km stretch of the Songchon River that flows by the mine are largely inoperative. This river empties into the Tumen River (which serves as the Sino-DPRK border) and is a source of drinking water for both Musan and all of the Chinese and North Korean towns downriver. Lack of adequate pollution control has caused "significant environmental damage". 

1. This is only an approximation based on a nominal rate of $1 USD to 1.2 KPW won between 1961-1974. Source:

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Amanda O., Anders O., GreatPoppo, Kbechs87, Planefag, Russ Johnson, and Travis Murdock.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Wollo-ri: Much Ado About Something

A counter-analysis examining known nuclear facilities and important civilian facilities reveals there are still many questions surrounding the site at Wollo-ri (also spelled Wonro-ri), and that a conclusion as to its purpose cannot yet be ascertained based on publicly available information.

Note: to save this report and read it later, you can download the PDF version here.

On July 8, 2020, CNN reported on research done by experts from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies on a facility in the village of Wollo-ri (near Pyongyang) that claims the facility is part of North Korea’s nuclear program and is likely involved in either warhead production or warhead storage.

Jeffrey Lewis and fellow researchers Catherine Dill, David LaBoon, and Dave Schmerler then published a more detailed account of their line of reasoning on the Arms Control Wonk blog. The post listed a number of visual signatures about Wollo-ri that led them to suspect the facility was part of the country’s nuclear program. That suspicion was then bolstered by a mention in Ankit Panda’s new book Kim Jong Un and the Bomb, in which Panda says that the US intelligence community assesses that there is an undeclared nuclear facility in Wollo-ri. Having that public mention of the facility led to Lewis et. al going public with their own research.

After the reporting, a number of experts commentedA and gave the general view that there is nothing specific to Wollo-ri that would make it a suspected nuclear facility. I happen to agree. However, there hasn’t been a point-by-point counter-analysis of why some experts may disagree with the assessment by Lewis et. al. That is the purpose of this report.

Before I go on, I want to be clear that none of this should be construed to mean that Wollo-ri isn’t a nuclear facility. It might be and it might not be. What I am attempting to show is that while the possibility exists, the probability of it is low based on the available evidence (especially whether it’s a storage facility), and that more research needs to be done before coming to any conclusion.


In the Arms Control Wonk post, five points are listed to support the group’s conclusion that this facility is likely an undeclared nuclear site. I would like to go through each of those points and give my reasoning for why I don’t think they are necessarily, either individually or collectively, direct signatures of a nuclear facility.

The signature elements described are:

1. A strong security perimeter

2. On-site housing

3. Monuments commemorating unpublicized leadership visits

4. The existence of underground facilities (UGFs)

5. Lewis also uses a description by US officials in September 2018 that talk about an undeclared warhead storage facility. The unnamed officials are cited as saying North Korea “built structures to obscure the entrance to at least one warhead storage facility” and that “the U.S. has also observed North Korean workers moving warheads out of the facility.”


On the security perimeter

The facility is surrounded by a wall that runs along the full perimeter of the site and is approximately 1,460 meters long. Lewis points out the fact that the nearby Ryongaksan Spring Water Factory doesn’t have any such perimeter wall, and so the wall’s existence helps to key us onto the fact that the facility is important.

Typically, this is true. Most civilian facilities lack a defined perimeter. However, many military sites lack them as well. In fact, few military sites have more than a guard post at the entrance let alone full perimeter security. There is even an artillery base located a mere 60 meters from Wollo-ri’s perimeter that doesn’t appear to be surrounded by anything; no wall, no fence, nothing. 

And while most civilian sites lack a wall, some do have one. An example is the nearby Mangyongdae Chicken Farm (39° 2'47.29"N 125°38'44.50"E) which has its own 2.9-kilometer-long wall.

When examining known nuclear-related facilities, we do find that most have a perimeter wall. The Pyongsan uranium processing and milling plant has one, each of the laboratories and research compounds within Yongbyon have their own walls, and sites associated with their WMD/missile programs also have them like the Kim Jong Un National Defense University. But while looking at these places, a key difference between them and Wollo-ri becomes apparent. 

The Wollo-ri facility has three entrances into the complex. There is a primary entrance at the southwest corner and then two others along the eastern portion of the wall. Every other known and suspected nuclear facility only has one direct entrance, including the suspected uranium enrichment site at Kangson which Lewis described in 2018.

The entrances at Wollo-ri are also fairly basic and do not appear to include anything substantial blocking the entry points, just small guard huts. No gate or movable fencing to impede forced entry.

Having multiple entry/exit points raises the security risk that something could be stolen. And having multiple sets of guards raises the risk that someone could be bribed to let in an unauthorized person(s).

Facilities like Yongbyon and the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, where substantial nuclear components and functional nuclear devices are held, take a multilayered approach to security. To get to the actual testing tunnels at Punggye-ri, one has to travel along several kilometers of narrow road and make it through multiple checkpoints. If Wollo-ri is where nuclear warheads are either being produced or stored, only the strictest security measures make sense.

Of on-site housing

Image showing apartment buildings ("A") at both Kangson and Wollo-ri.

Using Kangson as an example, Lewis cites what are likely apartment blocks within the perimeter as evidence that the facility may be part of the country’s nuclear program because having on-site housing (within a walled complex) is quite rare, and Kangson also has on-site housing. On-site housing is indeed unusual in North Korea but most nuclear facilities, in fact, do not have such an arrangement. Neither the Pyongsan or Pakchon uranium milling plants have housing, Yongbyon is a closed city with a defined housing district but no housing within the individual research and production areas, and the Academy of National Defense Science (Sanum-dong) lacks it as well. Other sites may have housing but part of that is due to the expansive size or remoteness of the facilities in question.

To be short, on-site housing at any facility would indicate it has some level of importance, but it is not a unique identifier of nuclear facilities.

Another thing to consider is how the housing relates to Wollo-ri’s potential purpose.

Wollo-ri lacks any obvious substantial electrical infrastructure which would point to the existence of energy-intensive industrial activity or to a large underground facility. When the site at Kangson was constructed, an electrical substation was built nearby as well to help provide the needed electricity. Lacking its own substation or major transmission lines, this would suggest that whatever is going on at Wollo-ri wouldn’t be intense industrial activity or producing large numbers of parts.

At the same time, there are six apartment blocks at the facility. I estimate that there are as many as 406 apartment unitsB; each given to a worker and their family. Assuming some couples work together, let’s make it an even 450 employees.

North Korea’s nuclear inventory has less than 100 warheads and it is estimated that they can produce no more than twelve bombs per year at maximum output. The country already possess an industrial base known to produce a range of electrical components for their ballistic missiles and other weapon systems, and more dangerous components (like the explosive lenses) are manufactured elsewhere, so an undeclared production facility would likely be used in the production of specialty parts. But you wouldn’t necessarily need 450 employees to produce a handful of small devices each year.


The monuments

Monuments can be an indicator of the importance of a facility. Whether it educational, industrial, agricultural, or military, the type of monument(s) seen at a site can help give a fairly unambiguous ranking for the place. They can also indicate if Kim Jong Un (or his predecessors) has visited before.

Wollo-ri possesses two monuments: a Tower of Immortality and an apparent joint mural of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

A typical example of a Tower of Immortality.

Towers are found in every town in the country and they are dedicated to the “eternal” lives of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. They can also be found at universities, factories, and other sites the regime deems worthy. During my 2019 survey of North Korean monuments, I found at least 5,175 Towers across the country.

Joint murals are found in county seats and at even more rarified civilian and military facilities.

In some places you can clearly see the faces of the Kims through satellite imagery. Unfortunately, the mural view at Wollo-ri isn’t the greatest quality. But what is obvious is that there are two images being shown (interpreted as busts of the Kims) and the rest of the monument’s surface appears to be white. This is indicative of a joint mural. Unlike the thousands of Towers, fewer than 300 were identified during the monument survey.

The existence of the mural at Wollo-ri is important, however, it isn’t a signature of a nuclear facility, even when combined with the Tower. The headquarters of North Korea’s air force has at least seven monuments and a joint statue of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, the highest honor any North Korean site can be bestowed. The headquarters also has a defined perimeter and on-site housing.

Monument at the Mangyongdae Children’s Camp commemorating visits by Kim Il Sung in 1974 and Kim Jong Un in 2016. | Screenshot provided by Colin Zwirko.

In the Arms Control Wonk post, it is claimed that the monuments at Wollo-ri indicate visits to the facility by the country’s leadership. That is simply incorrect. As I have described, Towers and joint murals are found in many locations and none are directly connected to leadership visits, rather, they are daily reminders of the Kim family cult and (when taken in combination) can ascribe a level of importance to a given site. Commemorative monuments are much smaller and are typically rectangular blocks of stone with a brief inscription carved into the surface.

These can be found at many (but not all) places visited by the Kims. In the event of multiple visits, instead of having an ever-growing wall of monuments, a museum will be built. This was the case with Korean People’s Army Farm No. 1116 which has received annual visits by Kim Jong Un since 2013. Even if visits to Wollo-ri weren’t publicized, the facility would still be awarded with a monument.

Wollo-ri only has the Tower and mural.

Underground facilities

In the most simplistic terms, an underground facility (UGF) could be defined as any useful structure with an inch of dirt placed on top. However, most wouldn’t consider a root cellar or simple basement a genuine underground facility. Particularly for the purpose of secure and clandestine manufacturing or storage, underground facilities are located multiple meters below the ground if they are placed underneath an existing building or they are excavated deep into hills and mountains.

North Korea probably has more identified underground sites than any country on earth. Some are enormous arms production facilities (like the Kanggye General Tractor Plant, the largest known underground arms manufacturing plant in North Korea) and others are smaller facilities used for storage or that sit empty until needed in the event of a conflict. They are all clearly identifiable once you know what to look for.

There are two hardened structures at Wollo-ri at the front end of the complex that were built in 2011-2012. (Coordinates: 39° 3'9.59"N 125°37'8.36"E) Neither is larger than 20 meters wide and there was no evidence of excavation work during their construction to suggest they cover an underground entrance. Small hardened structures like these are common enough and are often used to store fuel or for other benign purposes.

There is also a small trench-like structure that is barely two meters wide that lies in the northeast section. (Coordinates: 39° 3'19.82"N 125°37'15.41"E) It does not connect to any building and doesn’t match the design of any other underground entry point one can find throughout the country. If it is supposed to be part of a UGF, I would say construction is just in the initial stages.

Most underground facilities are easy to spot.

One such facility is between the cities of Pyongsong and Sunchon, beneath Mt. Sonje. It has four entry points and there are piles of debris that were excavated from inside the hill during construction. 

In other cases, where a building hides the entry point, the building is flush with the hillside. None of the main buildings at Wollo-ri are flush with the hillside. The other buildings at Wollo-ri could only hide a UGF that was constructed directly beneath them and there is no evidence of that having occurred. (Construction wasn’t caught on imagery and no large debris piles are evident.)

In the event where you connect a UGF to a building that isn’t flush with the surrounding landscape, a connecting structure is built. A prime example of that is a connecting tunnel that was built in 2017 and connects a building in the Armed Forces District of Pyongyang to a massive underground complex. It is approx. 6 meters wide and extends a maximum of 20 meters to reach the hill. Prior to this connecting structure, the main entrance, 660 meters away from the newer one, was still identifiable.

Warhead storage possibility

Lewis’ addition of the description of an unidentified nuclear warhead storage facility is interesting but there was nothing in the description that mentioned Wollo-ri or that gave a specific location. The officials simply said there’s a warhead storage site somewhere. In terms of storage, there are other more suitable places suspected of being warhead storage facilities, including one near the city of Kusong.

And when looking at known warhead storage sites around the world, a few trends become clear. Namely, very tight security and underground storage. The largest warhead repository in the world is the Kirtland Underground Munitions and Maintenance Storage Complex in the scrublands around Albuquerque. The underground portion alone covers roughly 57,000 square meters (not including the potential for multiple levels).

It has a single entry point, it is surrounded by fencing, and has three watchtowers. Plus, it is situated in the middle of a larger military complex.

Incirlick AB with US/NATO nuclear storage site highlighted. | Image source: Federation of American Scientists/Hans Kristensen

Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base is another place that houses American/NATO warheads (up to 50). They are stored underground in the center of the air base which is the most secure area.

The lack of any identifiable underground facilities at Wollo-ri, its questionable security, and the lack of any direct mention of the site specifically as a storage facility leads me to conclude that while it may have a role to play in North Korea’s nuclear program, the probability of it being a warhead storage facility is almost zero. Adding to that assessment are the additional facts that Wollo-ri is located far away from any long-range missile bases and the fact that it is located just a few miles of an elite section of Pyongyang.

In order for North Korea’s ballistic missiles to be a credible threat, they must be near the warheads. Wollo-ri is nearly 70 km away from the nearest known ballistic missile base and that journey would take hours across miles of winding road and rail – an easy target to destroy.

And while North Korea does have a habit of meshing military and civilian areas together, any direct hit to a nuclear storage site would spread radioactive material across a wide area thanks to fire and wind currents, contaminating the city with highly enriched uranium and/or plutonium (depending on the type of weapons stored there).


Political University?

I’d like to briefly discuss an alternative explanation put forth by an alleged North Korean official. He claimed that the facility is actually the “Pyongyang Anti-aircraft Unit Command’s Political Military University”. I and many others deeply question this explanation. There is a state security academy nearby at 39° 2'39.39"N 125°38'1.49"E, and it and all of the other known political and security schools follow a very specific pattern. Wollo-ri does not comport with that pattern and deviates from it in a number of ways. While I am not convinced that Wollo-ri is a nuclear-related facility, I reject the assertion that it is a mere political university.



While there aren’t any other “unusual” facilities around Wollo-ri that could instead be the nuclear facility, the evidence provided for the site in question, in my estimation, doesn’t rise to a likely probability – particularly when it comes to the question of it being a warhead storage site. The specific parts of Wollo-ri described are common to many other facilities (military, industrial, and educational), and it seems the claim rests largely on the book mention, for which other questions need to be answered before having the confidence to connect the intelligence assessment with this specific location.

Even when looking at all of the signatures discussed on the Arms Control Wonk post in combination, the perimeter, housing, monuments, etc. they don’t add up to a unique identifier. To demonstrate this, one need only look at the Samchon Fish Farm (which underwent an expansion in 2019). It, too, has a security wall, on-sight housing, multiple monuments, and it also has its own electrical substation and a water supply system that is partially underground.

But back to Wollo-ri. As a village it is unassuming, so the Wollo-ri facility certainly sticks out among the structures surrounding it. It just doesn’t stick out in any specific manner. There are also less conspicuous (aka not unusual looking) military facilities in the area, some that include underground sites, that could theoretically serve as a production site. (The underground facilities at the Panghyon Aircraft Plant are thought to have played an early role in the country’s enrichment program.)

Last note

On a personal note, I have never openly debated the analytical work of anyone before, so I want to take a moment to address this. Lewis and the other experts who took part in analyzing Wollo-ri are brilliant. That’s rather self-evident when you look at each of their careers. I am not saying they are wrong, rather, I disagree with the conclusions drawn based on the evidence presented.

Wollo-ri is a “puzzle” in certain ways, as David LaBoon told me, and I agree with that. The fact the village has been mentioned in connection with the country’s nuclear program by an intelligence official is intriguing, but the facility’s aspects are vague, yet also show importance. Importance to what is the question.

As interest in North Korea grows and the tools available for open-source intelligence improves, the body of work relating to the country has exploded (pardon the pun). Having an open dialogue about differing analysis creates a fuller and more nuanced picture and serves to better inform the public and policy makers going forward.



1. Shin Jong-woo of the Korea Defense and Security Forum said, "It may be a facility for another military purpose, not for nuclear warhead development."

2. Olli Heinonen, former deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) told Voice of America that there is little possibility that there is a nuclear facility around Wollo-ri and that, “the report does not provide clear evidence that the facility is nuclear-related.”

3. A report by the Korean Broadcasting Service also noted, “South Korea’s military and intelligence authorities have dismissed a CNN report that said activity suspected of being nuclear warhead production.”

B. There are five apartment buildings in a cluster and a likely sixth (that’s of a different layout) near the southern end of the facility. Each building is seven stories tall. Estimating the first five buildings have 10 apartment suites on each floor, that comes to 350 units. And the sixth building has eight suites or 56 units for the building. That totals 406 apartment units. Depending on the actual layout of the units, there could be fewer or substantially more.

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Amanda O., Anders O. GreatPoppo, Kbechs87, Planefag, Russ Johnson, and Travis Murdock.

--Jacob Bogle, 7/23/2020

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Mystery at Pyongyang Security Ministry

In 2020 the People's Security Department (aka Ministry of People's Security) was renamed the Ministry of Social Security. The MSS oversees a number of functions including police, prisons, assists in securing the distribution of food, and aides other security agencies.

It is one of the three "pillars" of DPRK state security. The other two are the military and the Ministry of State Security.

One of their facilities, according to the 38 North Digital Atlas, is this complex on the western outskirts of Pyongyang. Its coordinates are 39° 3'10.50"N 125°40'14.21"E. Landsat/Copernicus imagery suggests this facility was built ca. 1989-1992 but the satellite resolution is low enough as to make a fully certain date range difficult.

In recent years, an underground complex has been constructed. Underground facilities (UGF) are not rare in North Korea, but this one consists of a "cut and cover" tunnel - not one that is excavated into a hill but where a trench is dug, the tunnel structure built, and then the site is covered over to hide it. Identifiable examples of cut and cover tunnels are indeed rare in the country.

The exact purpose of this tunnel/underground facility is a bit of a mystery, but considering its location, I feel that detailing its ongoing construction history is important.

General outline of the complex.

The two sections of the complex are joined by a tunnel that runs beneath the central hill dividing the site. The tunnel is approximately 188 meters in length.

The tunnel allows vehicles quick access to each side of the complex without having to go around the hill. The facility has undergone many changes over the years, but this tunnel has existed since at least 2000.

At the very rear of the complex is another underground site. Whether or not it is directly connected to the Ministry complex isn't known but its proximity is interesting.

A trench has existed at the left-side facility since at least the year 2000 and implies that plans for this new underground structure have been around for a long time.

The trench excavation runs about 205 meters long and averages 12 meters wide.

Little else changed at the site until 2013 when several temporary buildings were constructed near the trench, and minor work at the upper end of the trench can also be seen. (Clearer images of this work come from 2014.)

Image showing construction activity in November 2013.

By September 2014, the upper portion of the tunnel is taking shape and a new building had been constructed at the site they were leveling off in 2013.

In 2014 other changes become visible including the addition of multiple permanent buildings (some were still under construction at this time).

By this time, it's clear that a tunnel had been excavated, the sides of the trench had been shored up, and the debris pile shows activity. It isn't known if this tunnel goes into the central hill or connects to the road tunnel between the two sections, but if you draw a straight line following the new walls of the trench, it does intersect with the existing road tunnel.

This at least theoretically gives the possibility that the entire central hill is actually a large underground facility that now has three points of access: the original road tunnel, the new tunnel under construction, and the older rear UGF. This part is merely speculation but the possibility of a large hidden facility is very interesting, as we know that numerous underground facilities exist in North Korea including some that are used in training security forces to hide their clandestine activities.

By April 2017, a concrete structure (or "box") can be seen inside the trench. At this stage, it is approximately 40 meters long and 5-6 meters wide. Additional work around the area to prepare for more construction has also taken place.

On the image dated October 26, 2017, it becomes clear that the concrete section from April was just one small part of a larger concrete tunnel structure that is now 155 meters long and about 10 meters wide.

This type of structure is similar to long military "drive thru" bunkers that exist throughout the country (at least 400 exist at last count). One such example is this bunker, also in Pyongyang, that is similarly divided into two segments and is 10-12 meters wide. It is approximately 190 meters long. These structures are typically used to house and protect various vehicles.

However, these other drive thru bunkers are usually seen as part of military bases and never as part of building construction, making this Ministry structure unique as far as I am aware.

By April 2018, the tunnel had been covered and the area leveled off. The foundation of a new building had also been dug at the north end of the site.

Fast forward to the end of 2019 and the new building has been completed and an entrance site to the tunnel was nearing completion (final touches, landscaping, etc.) By November, another foundation can be seen. The new foundation is in the middle of the construction site and sits on top of the tunnel.

Based on the most recent Google Earth image, there is vehicle traffic going in and out of the tunnel. The square foundation has also had some additional work.

On the above March 13, 2020 image, you can see a driveway leading into the new foundation. The angle doesn't allow for this to be a second entrance into the main tunnel. The whole area has been raised above the tunnel, however, allowing for a low/shallow basement to exist at the new building site. This most likely where the driveway is going.

More recent satellite imagery (that I am not free to share publicly) shows that construction at the site is slow but ongoing. Unfortunately, it doesn't provide further clues to the site's purpose.


While not associated with this site at the Security Ministry, there is another underground construction that likewise began in 2017 and consists of a main tunnel structure. Its coordinates are 39°11'38.26"N 125°45'14.04"E, or 1.8 km north of the Kim Jong Il People's Security University in northern Pyongyang. The tunnel entrance is 12-13 meters wide and it has no apparent exit point.

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Amanda O., Anders O., GreatPoppo, Kbechs87, Planefag, Russ Johnson, and Travis Murdock.

--Jacob Bogle 7/11/2020