Monday, March 23, 2020

Abandoned Projects of the DPRK

A lot of attention is given to the various plans and policies of North Korea. From Kim Jong Il's songbon (military-first) to Kim Jong Un's byungjin (duel-path focusing on nuclear and economic development), each time a new declaration is made many people tend to overreact as though they're somehow distinct or substantially different from the previous policy.

The fact is, they're all variations on a theme. The byungjin policy promulgated by Kim Jong Un is little different than national policies set out by North Korea's founder, Kim Il Sung.

Simultaneous focus on light industry and energy, focus on feeding the people and building nuclear weapons. It all boils down to this: keep the economy going and maintain the military. In classic Stalinist style, these kinds of policies either do little in reality or take an inordinate amount of time to achieve.
They rely on the mass work of millions and the ramping up of efforts in one sector only to lurch to some other area. And in the process, an enormous amount of inefficiency shows up and completely wasted effort is expended. Adding to the inept economic planning of the last 75 years is the fact that none of these policies acknowledge the strain prestige projects add to the system.

The country has spent combined billions on empty mega hotels, palaces for the dead, and trying to "save face" by competing with South Korea in ways that ended up making the 1990s famine even worse (such as the case of the 13th World Festival of Youth and Games which consumed a quarter of the country's entire budget).

Naturally, this means the country is littered with abandoned or half completed projects as the country's direction is moved from one focus to another, often with little regard for sound economic or military principles.

Ryugyong Hotel

The "Hotel of Doom" as seen from the Yanggakdo International Hotel in 2012. Image: Commons/Nicor

The most well-known abandoned project is the Ryugyong Hotel in the middle of Pyongyang. Construction began in 1987 and it was intended to be completed for Kim Il Sung's 80th birthday in 1992. Lauded as the soon-to-be "world's tallest hotel", construction was never finished, and it sat for many years as little more than concrete and steel shell. This helped earn it the nickname "Hotel of Doom". The collapse of the Soviet Bloc dried up foreign investment in North Korea as well as put an end to imported construction materials that had been sold at discount "friendship prices". By the time work halted in 1992, some estimates place the price tag at $750 million.

Two years later a famine began, and a million North Koreans died of starvation and related illnesses. The hotel was such a failure that in some images of the Pyongyang skyline, officials altered the pictures to remove the building. It was basically ignored and soon "officially" never existed, its giant corpse looming over the grey capital of a grey and dying country.

It wasn't until 2008 that construction resumed with a $400 million investment from an Egyptian company. By 2011 the exterior was finally clad in glass and, from a distance, it at least looked like it was completed. However, as many international firms have learned, trying to do business with North Korea is extremely difficult and initial costs often far exceed the original estimates. The building has structural problems, the regime can't produce the quality materials needed, and the building still sits unfinished and empty. The biggest change since 2011? The addition of LED lights to the outside that can produce light shows. $1.1 billion spent on a hotel, just to get light shows.

New hovercraft bases come to a crawl

Under Kim Jong Un, North Korea has been investing huge sums into their conventional (non-nuclear) military forces. This has included expanding their ability to project force using the country's fleet of hovercraft.

Hovercraft offer the regime the ability to rapidly attack South Korean bases and other targets, and to insert special operations forces while limiting South Korea's time to fully react.

The unfinished hovercraft base at Manghae-dong.

The biggest of the new bases is at Yonbong-ni, along the Yellow Sea (West Sea), but work has been slow going. The military established two other future bases as well. Their stories are even less successful.

Nearby Yonbong-ni is Manghae-dong. The first signs of construction appear in 2015 and by 2018, sixteen hovercraft housing bays were under construction. The beginnings of a "sled way" to allow the craft to go from land to the sea is also visible.

However, by the end of 2019 very little new work has been done and much of the site looks abandoned. Further evidence of this is the fact that most of the temporary workers' housing has been removed.

The abandoned housing bays of the San-go-li hovercraft base.

A facility at San-go-li (in Kangwon Province) has fared even worse. While Manghae still exhibits a little life, Son-go-li has been completely abandoned.

While the initial excavation of ~19 housing bays began in 2015-2016, that's as far as things went. The latest image from Google Earth shows the place abandoned and the bays flooded. In the meantime, a new coastal hotel was constructed 0.8 km away.


North Korea has a notoriously bad road network. A road trip that might take an hour or two elsewhere, could end up consuming an entire day in the DPRK. Part of this because they lack the money for infrastructure and part is actually on purpose. If you have few paved roads and lots of dirt paths, it makes it awfully difficult for an invading army to quickly move along.

However, there have been attempts to improve the country's road network. Some of them have been successful and other plans have been left by the roadside. One such abandoned project was an extension of the Pyongyang-Huichon Highway (HWY 65) near the historic city of Hyangsan.

Hyangsan sits at the base of Mount Myohyang, which plays an important role in Korea's mytho-historic past, and is where the International Friendship Exhibition is. Huichon is 17 km away.
Huichon is an important industrial and military city, and is the second largest city in Chagang Province. Thus, ensuring rapid transit from the city to Pyongyang would be an important goal.

Abandoned rows of piers. Google Earth, Dec. 6, 2019.

The bulk of the 4-lane highway coming from Pyongyang was constructed in 1994-95, but stopped at Hyangsan, where it shrank to a winding 2-lane road. Coming south from Huichon, the smaller section of the planned 4-lane highway was actually begun in 1990 but was never completed. Bridge piers sit stranded in fields, and hills have large scars from the excavation work, but no road exists. The abandoned section would have been 21.5 km long and take a mostly straight path. The current 2-lane route follows the Chongchon River and adds several kilometers to the trip.

Land reclamation

North Korea is very mountainous and less than 20% of available land is arable. But the country does have 2,500 km of coastline with vast tidal flats in the west, and that means opportunities for land reclamation.

The projects typically involve blocking off tidal flats from the sea and allowing river sediment to backfill the area or taking a more direct approach and manually filling in the land with countless loads of soil. Another process is connecting nearby islets with dams/barriers to enclose an area and having it filled.

Combined, these projects have accomplished adding over 260 sq. km. of land and proposed projects would add dozens more. However, a lot of these projects have been stalled or abandoned.

The Ryongmae Island Project was supposed to yield 3,676 acres of new farmland. Initial reclamation attempts even go back before 1985, but there has been little progress.

Ironically, there is some debate as to the caloric value of reclaiming coastal land to grow rice. It may be that there are more calories and protein in the countless small fish and crustaceans that otherwise live in these areas than the country might yield growing rice.

Power plant

North Korea has struggled with electricity generation for decades. It has several large thermal power plants (each working at varying degrees of efficiency) and scores of hydroelectric facilities, but they're inadequate to the task and very few places in the country can count on electricity all day, every day.  Hurried construction based on arbitrary timelines (such as political anniversaries) also results in flawed construction and inevitable delays, meaning they're always playing catching up.

To try and address the electricity problem, the regime began constructing a new coal powered plant near the village of Samdung, south of Kangdong. Construction began in 2011 and carried on through 2013, at which time construction came to a halt. Seven years later and no progress has been made.

Abandoned Samdung power plant. Google Earth, April 21, 2019.


Even when it comes to letting people have fun places to go to, internal politics results in millions of wasted dollars.

The Pyongyang Folklore Park was a microcosm of North Korean identity. It had replicas of ancient palaces, a scale model of Mt. Paektu, and many other attractions. Construction began in 2008 and was mostly completed by 2013. It was Kim Jong Un's uncle, Jang Sung-taek who allegedly managed the project and helped make it a reality. Kim had Jang killed on Dec. 12, 2013 for a myriad of reasons.

Pyongyang Folklore Park near completion. Google Earth May 3, 3013.

As Kim Jong Un consolidated his power and once he felt secure from the ghost of his once extremely powerful dead uncle, he closed the 80-acre park in 2016 and began to demolish it. All that remains today are piles of rubble.

The park's remains. Google Earth, April 11, 2019.

There are many other examples of abandoned projects and ones that were sidelined while the nation's entire output of construction materials was sent to one or two specific sites (like new Wonsan resorts and the rebuilt city of Samjiyon). This behavior highlights the inefficiency of command economies and shows just how vulnerable the people are to the whims of Pyongyang.

At the same time, other projects have been under construction for decades, as work progresses in fits and starts, seemingly without reason. Two interesting examples would be the Hagap Underground Facility and the Kangda-ri underground runway.

However, despite all of this waste and the suffering it prolongs, the country's economy and military has advanced ever so slowly. Kim Jong Un does seem to have been able to pull many disparate threads into something quasi-functional. It must be said that his rule has been more effective than that of his father's; unfortunately, it has been just a cruel.

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

--Jacob Bogle, 3/22/2020

Friday, February 21, 2020

Review of KPA Farm No. 1116

The Korean People's Army (KPA) Farm No. 1116 is a large, military-controlled collective farm on the southern outskirts of Pyongyang and adjacent to the Ryokpo winter palace.

The whole complex includes the main farm, a mushroom farm, and encloses the palace. Its perimeter length is approx. 16.5 km and the amount of cultivated land is around 368 hectares or 909 acres (including greenhouses). The primary farm is overseen by KPA Unit 810, while the mushroom farm is operated by KPA Unit 534. Based on their location, both units would be subordinate to the Pyongyang Defense Command.

(As usual, click on any image for a larger view.)

Perimeter of KPA Farm No. 1116 with Ryokpo Winter Residence also outlined.

Map of farm with the 368 hectares of cultivated land highlighted. Excludes small plots of land each resident is allocated for personal use but includes greenhouses.

Based on a review of satellite imagery, the collective farm was established sometime between 2000 and 2006 with the construction of dozens of housing units and an administration building.

In 2011, this section was enlarged with the addition of another building by the agriculture-related complex.

Beginning in 2017, the administrative building was demolished, and a new headquarters was constructed, complete with research facilities, a farm museum, enlarged greenhouses, and a small solar farm. Large, new greenhouses were also added nearby.

Korean Central News Agency photo of the new HQ building from 2019.

The monument site has been enlarged over the years. A monument first appears in 2011 (although it could have been erected any time between 2006 and 2011). The site was enlarged with the addition of a small building in 2013. The building was doubled in size in 2016, and the plaza was enlarged in 2019.

These changes are indicative of visits by leadership. These monuments and museums are dedicated to "On the Spot Guidance" given by Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, or Kim Jong Un and can be found across the country. In the case of this farm, the monument and museum are for Kim Jong Un's multiple "field guidance" trips. Kim has visited at least once a year from 2013 onward. Since a monument was in place by 2011, it is likely that Kim Jong Il also paid the farm a visit at least once before his death.

Kim Jong Un inspecting the mushroom farm in 2013. Photo: Rodong Sinmun

One other major addition to the farm was the construction of a mushroom farm ca. 2010.
The first satellite imagery of it is from 2011 but the site appears relatively new, so I am inclined to believe that it was built soon before. The farm was expanded in 2013 and is capable of year-round production. It has dedicated housing for its staff of all-female soldiers.

The sub-farm is within Farm No. 1116 but it is operated by KPA Unit #534 instead of Unit #810.

Military farms do more than just provide food for the army, they are a major source of foreign currency earnings. Everything from fish to mushrooms are farmed and then sold (or smuggled) to international markets, namely China. Pyongyang imports hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of luxury goods each year and legal trade doesn't provide the amount of cash needed. So, the government turns to the military to operate a secondary economy to bring in much needed funds.

The military also works with the "household staff" and leadership security units to provide enough supplies to furnish the food needed to supply multiple palaces and countless lavish parties each year. Evidence of this can also be found at this farm.

There is an animal farm (probably poultry, but it could be other animals) that has a direct road into the Ryokpo palace grounds. It was tripled in size in 2011.

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

--Jacob Bogle, 2/20/2020

Friday, January 31, 2020

North Korea and the Coronavirus

On January 22, 2020, North Korea closed its borders to international tourism (primarily because China is the biggest source of foreign tourists) and has since begun to consider halting domestic tourism within the country as well should it be deemed necessary. The country has also started work, albeit limited, with the World Health Organization.

Pro-Pyongyang groups like the Korean Friendship Association have praised these measures and described them as proof of the regime's care for its people. Indeed, North Korea has a long history of closing its borders during other outbreaks. The reality, however, is somewhat more pragmatic and less about the fatherly love of Kim Jong Un.

Like many communist countries, North Korea built hospitals all over the country in the early years after its founding and used that to promote the morality of their ideology compared to the "exploitative" healthcare systems of other countries. What gets lost in the propaganda is the true nature of those hospitals.

North Korea allegedly has hospitals in every town and anytime a major health facility is constructed, you'll see images of the Great Leader walking around and giving "guidance" regarding every aspect of construction, operation, and even aesthetic appeal. In recent years there has been a new eye care facility, a maternity hospital, and a new general hospital constructed in Pyongyang. Even a large medical device factory near Huichon was completely reconstructed to improve their products. 

At the same time, the country has long been struggling to contain highly infectious tuberculosis outbreaks. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2018 the DPRK had 131,000 new cases of TB, in a country with a population of 25 million. Some 20,000 died (increasing each year since 2016). The country's treatment coverage rate is 69%, compared to China's treatment coverage rate of 92% and Russia's 99%. The United States with its 315 million people recorded only 9,025 cases.

While TB is indeed very contagious, its early-stage treatment is relatively straight-forward and there are several outside organizations trying to help, including the Eugene Bell Foundation which focuses on the more difficult and expensive treatment of drug-resistant TB (which makes up ~4% of TB cases in the country). Yet, the death rate keeps climbing. The driving force behind North Korea's inability to control the crisis is undernourishment compounded by an inadequate medical sector. 

Undernourishment has been an ongoing problem for the country since the early 1990s. Despite the end of a nationwide famine in 1998, in some provinces as many as 32% of children under 5 years suffer from stunted growth as result of nutritional deficiencies. This multi-generational problem even led to the North Korean military being forced to lower height and weight requirements to reflect this reality in order to meet recruitment demands.

Besides stunted growth, lack of adequate food can greatly increase one's risk of illness. Something like the annual flu becomes a much harder fight and fatality rates for at-risk populations (the very young, old, and those with other illnesses) skyrocket. This fact is also mirrored in the fatality rates of other coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS. The average death rate for SARS was 11% but jumped to nearly 50% for those over the age of 65.

Such disparities in fatality rates apply to all diseases and can be seen in all countries, but the additional stress of not having enough food or bodily energy reserves magnifies the risk of both getting infected and of dying.

This brings me back to the hospitals of North Korea. 

The state of North Korea's healthcare infrastructure is among the least capable and prepared in the world. Local "hospitals" would hardly be recognizable to many westerners and are little more than clinics where you're just as likely to find odd assortments of herbs as you are to find medicine. This reliance on traditional therapies in a modern, "scientific" socialist state is because even basic medical supplies are in short supply or nonexistent in rural areas. 

Unfortunately, international actions against the North Korean government have only worsened the health crisis. After a new round of sanctions, the country's only WHO-certified pharmaceutical manufacturer closed down in 2017. 

This shortage of fundamental medicines like antibiotics and pain relievers only serves to exacerbate outbreaks of disease and lowers recovery outcomes.

The only moderately well-provisioned hospitals in the country are in provincial capitals and the national capital of Pyongyang. However, these services are not free. Regardless of the legal guarantee to free healthcare, patients have to pay for everything from the needle used in an IV to providing their own meals if hospitalized. This is out of reach for the average citizen. Making things worse is the rationing of medications and equipment. The very best is held back for use only by the county's tiny elite and to be used by foreigners (who also have to pay). 

In view of North Korea's inability to provide adequate care to their own citizens without international support, let alone during an outbreak of a new virus, the decision to halt foreign tourism becomes about the fear of national survival. However, nations require more than just people to survive. The other thing to consider when trying to understand the actions taken by Pyongyang, is the fact that only tourism was stopped. Not trade.

Each year tens of thousands of Chinese tourists visit the country. But each year countless more thousands of North Korean citizens come in contact with further thousands of Chinese traders and businessmen. While the risk of an outbreak could threaten the North Korean state, ending trade with China would end the state. Thus, Pyongyang took a calculated risk. Lower the chances of the virus spreading by ending tourism but allow the risks stemming from trade because the country would quickly come to a halt without Chinese goods and the foreign currency generated through trade.

All of this comes not long after North Korea announced it would seek to create a medical tourism sector. This announcement came last year and was intended to begin this year. In a country where antibiotics are largely absent, aspirin is held dear, and where rumors of surgeries being performed without anesthesia routinely pop up, the regime thought it was best to use their medical resources to give outsiders new dental work and eye lifts.

The desire to become a medical tourism destination is rooted in the desire of the regime to make the money it needs to survive. Likewise, allowing person-to-person trade across borders is about maintaining the system. The risks of spreading infections is a secondary consideration. The real motivation is regime survival.

The state can survive a short-term hold on tourism, it can also survive having a few people receive amputations when a $0.05/dose antibiotic could have saved a limb or having a few people get sick from a virus which is much less deadly than SARS. The state can't survive, however, without the cash needed to fund its military or to buy the loyalty of elite families, and Pyongyang is still busy ensuring those activities continue with as little disturbance as possible.

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

--Jacob Bogle, 1/30/2020

Friday, January 17, 2020

Work on Major Hovercraft Base Advances

Image of 2016 landing exercises using hovercraft. | Photo: Rodong Sinmun
I recently wrote about an ongoing trend under Kim Jong Un to vastly overhaul every branch of the country's military, and this, of course, includes the construction of new naval bases and the redeployment of equipment.

High-speed hovercraft play a key role in North Korea's special operations forces (SOF). Beginning in the 1980s, the Korean People's Navy (KPN) started slowly improving its capabilities to quickly attack or infiltrate South Korean targets and by the mid-1990s their hovercraft inventory reached ~140 craft (a number which has largely remained stable over the years). While the KPN’s inventory may have remained somewhat stable, a number of new naval bases and related facilities have been under construction (or expansion) since Kim Jong Un came to power. One such base is near the small village of Yonbong-ni (37.9071°, 125.2242°).

Starting around March 2014 constructed began on this new hovercraft base. The Yonbong-ni facility compliments two others that were completed ca. 2012-2013. However, Yonbong-ni (once completed) will be much larger than the other two and, at 22 miles from the Northern Limit Line, will also be the most forward-deployed hovercraft base and one of the most forward-deployed naval bases North Korea has. (There is a small naval facility on Sunwi Island which lies 11 km from the NLL.)

The first indication of the base's construction was the placement of a small earthen dam across an inlet to moderate the flow of water into the bay from the mainland. I'd like to note that while the base's location may seem fairly remote, from the dam, it is less than 2 km away from a long-standing patrol boat station to the west.

By October 2015, commercial satellite imagery showed an apparent administrative area under construction as well as the excavation of seven hovercraft storage bays into the side of a hill (in three groupings of two and an individual one, located immediately east and south of the dam).

Part of the national coastal barrier was also in the process of being demolished which would otherwise have blocked access to the sea.

October 4, 2015 image showing the initial excavation of the hovercraft housing bays and the location of the old barrier.

Fast forward to April 2018, and a total of 54 individual housing bays were in various stages of construction, foundations for additional support facilities had been laid, and a seawall and small pier were also constructed. Several bays also had concrete walls built and their entrance structures completed. The entrance structures also allow for on-site maintenance instead of needing to move the hovercraft around various other parts of this rather expansive base.

By April 2018 construction had begun on three large groupings of housing bays as well as support facilities across the base.

At the same time, approximately 560 meters of sea wall had been put in place as well as a pier.

By October 2018, additional foundation work at various sites within the base had been carried out, as well as some further construction of other buildings.

However, the most recent Google Earth imagery (Nov. 6, 2019) shows a mixed picture.

Two bays have been completed with roof framing added to another set of two bays. Four additional bays have had their side walls constructed as well, and the temporary worker's quarters still exists.
At the same time, none of the administration or support buildings have been completed and some of the bays still haven't been fully excavated. In fact, some sites appear to be neglected and overgrown.

In this image, the original three sets of two bays are nearing completion. The left-most bay is finished and covered in dirt, the middle bay has framing installed for the roof, and the far-right bay doesn't have framing but does have its side walls and entrance structure completed. These three sets are the only ones with their entrance & maintenance structures in place.

In this image you can see the partial construction of three sets of two bays and the incomplete excavations of four bays on the far left. 

Despite construction elsewhere, these two sets of four storage bays seem to have been neglected and are overgrown with grass and shrubs.

The partial neglect of certain areas of the base appears to extend to the largest group of housing bays as well.

In this image, room for up to 18 individual hovercraft shelters has been partially excavated but none have been completed. Four barracks/support buildings were halfway built by mid-to-late 2018 but no further work has been carried out on them in the year or so since. However, a small area of newer work (new since Oct. 2018) can be seen to the left of the barracks.

Additionally, the temporary housing and warehouses used for construction still exists regardless of the construction slowdown.

Construction has certainly advanced beyond where it was in 2018 but the KPN may have decided to scale-back its initial scope. Another possible explanation for the apparent neglect of some parts of the base is that work began in 2019 on a kilometer-long tidal dam (which may eventually house a hydroelectric station) and personnel may have been redirected to that site to help finish it quickly, as military personnel are often used as general labor. This new dam is located roughly 0.8 km to the north of the northernmost sector of the base.

While the base isn't yet fully finished, the ongoing work at Yonbong-ni and work at military bases around the country demonstrates Pyongyang's continued dedication to their asymmetrical capabilities and their desire to have the capacity to inflict rapid and painful attacks against South Korea, as well as being able to defend their own territorial claims.

According to Joseph Bermudez, who wrote in detail about the initial construction phases of Yonbong-ni and the other hovercraft bases in 2018, the layout of the base "provide[s] significantly better protection from blast and fragmentation damage than any of the existing sheds or shelters found at other hovercraft bases."
Additionally, it offers "the advantage of being able to more easily land an assault force from the south and east without having to pass the heavily defended north side of [Baegnyeong-do]. More significantly, hovercraft from the Yŏnbong-ni base can quickly reach the ROK islands of Daecheong-do (Taech’ŏng-do), Socheong-do (Soch’ŏng-do) and Yeonpyeong-do (Yŏnp’yŏng-do) in approximately 30, 40 and 70 minutes, respectively; and the port city of Incheon can be reached in 90 minutes."

Additional Reading:
For more information on North Korea's hovercraft bases and special operations forces, check out Beyond Parallel's four part series (by Joseph Bermudez): Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IV

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

--Jacob Bogle, 1/16/2020

Saturday, January 11, 2020

The Current State of North Korea’s Satellite and Missile Facilities

Rocket engine test at the Sohae Satellite Launch Station |Photo: Rodong Sinmun, April 9, 2016

Over the decades, North Korea has decentralized its satellite and missile launching facilities across its territory. One obvious benefit to this is security but it is done at the cost of efficiency. The more facilities one has, the more resources are necessary to maintain and upgrade them. It may even become necessary to neglect or demolish a site in favor of improving more important ones. Pyongyang seems to have learned this lesson and placed some sites in caretaker status, demolished others, and concentrated resources to support their core infrastructure.

In this article, I will examine the current state of the country’s launch and testing facilities and detail a few important changes that have happened under Kim Jong Un, who has overseen a greater number of missile tests than his predecessors combined.

While North Korea has a history of launching missiles from a range of locations (factories, airfields, and even along highways), the country does have a robust set of dedicated launching and testing facilities.
Currently, the country has two satellite launch sites, three rocket engine test facilities, a general launch facility, and two former sites that have been decommissioned in recent years. Within Pyongyang, two known tracking and control centers also exist.

Satellite Launch Sites

While all countries have the right to peaceful space exploration, the development of rocket engines to carry satellites or astronauts necessitates the development of ballistic technology. Indeed, this has been a concern of other nations regarding the development of private space exploration. North Korea’s official protests that their space program is solely peaceful have never been taken seriously by the West and even their own propaganda has occasionally betrayed the rouse. Most recently, the purpose of the December 2019 engine tests at the Sohae Satellite Launch Station have been described by state media as “bolstering up the reliable strategic nuclear deterrent of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”.

Image showing the rebuilt vertical engine test stand |Photo: Google Earth

Located on the western seaboard, initial construction activity at Sohae (also known as Tongch'ang) was first noticed in the early 1990s and was largely completed by 2011. The first test occurred on April 13, 2012, with the failed launch of the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 earth observation satellite.
Improvements to the site continued to be made over the years including new administrative and observation facilities, an upgraded rail station, and even the establishment of an outer perimeter fence that encompasses the original complex and its inner perimeter. In terms of recent activity, there are three primary examples.

The first occurred in 2018. As a result of the first US-DPRK summit that was held in Singapore, North Korea began dismantling key structures. However, rapprochement didn’t last long and in March 2019 the second change happened, the launch pad structures began to be rebuilt. The third change came with the end of 2019 and underlined the continued importance of Sohae, as two rocket engine tests were carried out.

The county’s second satellite launch station, on the other hand, has largely remained in caretaker status since 2013.

Tonghae Satellite Launch Station (also known as Musudan-ri) is in North Hamgyong Province along the east coast. Considerably smaller, Tonghae’s construction started in the 1980s and was originally used in the development of early generation Scud missiles. In 1998, North Korea claimed to have launched a Kwangmyŏngsŏng-1 satellite from Tonghae, however, no orbital object was ever located or tracked by outside observers.

Another failed satellite launch attempt happened in 2009. In 2012, one of the last major additions to the site was constructed. The site, which has yet to be positively identified, is either a test facility or possible missile silo. However, despite initial progress, it was never completed. The most recent Google Earth imagery shows that it may actually be in the process of demolition.
Much of the trench covering has been removed and the control building has been torn down.

In May 2018, the trench covering was visible, and the control building was still standing |Photo: Google Earth

By November 2019, the covering had been partially removed and the control building demolished |Photo: Google Earth

Tonghae’s launch pad appears to be abandoned and is overgrown, while activity at the engine test stand and assembly building remains minimal. In fact, the grounds of the assembly building have been used for crop harvesting activities.

The original launch control building, tracking station, and the “new” control building (construction finished ca. 2015) have all seen little activity and signs of minor disrepair are visible. The Horizontal Processing Building has never been completed, despite construction starting in 2012.
Tonghae’s situation may be the result of the regime’s focus on launching satellites at Sohae with its superior facilities, testing missiles on mobile platforms, and keeping engine test stands near other required infrastructure, whereas Tonghae sits miles away from manufacturing and fuel production facilities. Tonghae’s future use seems rather bleak.

Rocket Engine Test Facilities

Beyond the engine testing facilities within both satellite stations are three additional test sites: at the Tae-sung missile factory (Pyongyang), the Magunpo solid-fuel engine test site (near Hamhung), and the Sinpo engine test site.

The Tae-sung rocket engine test stand as seen after a 2016 modernization program |Photo: Google Earth

The vertical test stand at Tae-sung (also called Chamjin) is located within the Tae-sung Missile Factory complex in Chollima, Pyongyang. Though the fairly rudimentary site can test engines for Scud and Nodong missiles, it underwent a period of general inactivity from 2006 to 2016. In 2016 the facilities were modernized, and a nose cone test was carried out. This suggests that testing larger engines may no longer be feasible (or necessary as other purpose-built sites exist) but that the site can still play a role in developing other aspects of ballistic missile technology.

Magunpo engine testing facility |Photo: Google Earth

Magunpo is one of North Korea’s newest testing sites (along with Sinpo). Vertical and horizontal test stands were constructed between 2013 and 2014. It also lies a mere 3 km from the No. 17 Explosives Factory in Hungnam where solid rocket propellant is produced. Since its construction, multiple tests have been carried out (as well as the launching of several missiles from the nearby Yongpo airfield to the southwest). Magunpo remains an important cog in North Korea’s missile program as it is currently the largest such site in the country.

Sinpo engine test stand |Photo: Google Earth

Within the city of Sinpo and including the nearby Mayang Island lies a key submarine base and is where most of the development of submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) occurs. Initial work on the land-based test stand began in 2012 and supports “both the development of the Pukguksong-1 (KN-11) SLBM and SINPO-class SSBA’s missile launch systems,” according to Joseph Bermudez. There have been several “ejection tests” at the site as well as tests carried out on sea-based, submersible barges. The most recent barge-based test was of the Pukguksong-3 (KN-28) which was conducted on October 2, 2019.

Work at the submarine base has been ongoing and, according to 38 North, the use of Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) "revealed the presence of the North Korean SINPO-class experimental ballistic missile submarine (SSBA) and its submersible test stand barge positioned beneath a recently constructed, dockside awning designed to conceal and environmentally protect these vessels.” 
This is strong evidence that the development of SLBMs is a primary focus of the regime.

Hodo Launch Site

The Hodo missile launch site and artillery testing grounds |Photo: Google Earth

The Hodo Launch Site is a dedicated missile launch facility that lies on the Hodo Peninsula, north of Wonsan. The area has been used for artillery training since the 1960s but within this decade the training area has been increasingly used for long-range artillery and ballistic missile testing. Concrete launch pads, a dock, and other support buildings were constructed beginning in 2014.

Two launch pads were constructed at the relatively close-by Wonsan-Kalma International Airport in 2016 and several tests were carried out there, however, the subsequent construction of resorts and hotels along the same beach meant that those launch sites were demolished. Since then, activity at Hodo has greatly increased with several tests happening in 2019 including a test on May 4, 2019 and two short-range missile tests occurring in July.

Decommissioned Launch Sites

The first decommissioned launch site in recent history was the aforementioned site at Wonsan. Those two pads were the location of several high-profile launches including a Hwasong-10 launch which Kim Jong Un himself oversaw. The extremely basic facility was demolished for expediency as Wonsan was about to undergo an enormous construction project to build beach resorts. The upgraded facilities at nearby Hodo also meant that Wonsan became redundant.

A comparison image showing the Iha-ri driver’s facility with the test stand visible in 2017 and in 2019 after its demolition |Photo: Google Earth

Perhaps the most significant change happened at the Iha-ri military driver training base in North Pyongan Province. Between 2016 and 2017 a vertical engine test stand was constructed at the base. It was only used once, as a canister-launched ballistic missile ejection test for the Pukguksong-2 (KN-15) before being demolished in mid-2018 as part of Kim Jong Un’s April 2018 announcement that they would suspend future ballistic missile tests. The base has since been returned to its original purpose.

Control Centers

Pyongyang is host to the country’s central missile and satellite control centers.

The General Rocket Control Center is located within the Second Academy of Natural Sciences (also known as the Academy of Defense Science or the Sanum-dong missile factory) in northern Pyongyang. It is responsible for tracking and other activities related to the testing of ballistic missiles and was constructed sometime between 2001 and 2005. The facility has remained largely unchanged except for a new hexagonal building that was constructed in 2016. The Academy lies adjacent to the Kim Jong Un National Defense University which also plays a role in the development of missile technology.

The General Satellite Control Center is the control center of the National Aerospace Development Administration. The modern-looking complex was constructed near central Pyongyang along the Pothong River between 2014-2015. It handles satellite launches and tracking. An expansion of the facility began in 2017 with multiple large buildings being added to the complex. Construction at the site has carried on well into 2019. The exact purpose of these new buildings is unknown, but it is possible that they may be research facilities and will also provide museum space.


While some facilities may have been shuttered or demolished, the core of North Korea’s testing infrastructure and their ability to research and to construct missiles and launch vehicles remain undiminished. Pyongyang’s insistence that the recent Sohae tests were part of their nuclear deterrence, and their ongoing work toward developing SLBMs at their Sinpo facilities, clearly demonstrate the regime’s intentions. The question becomes, will the international community listen to what North Korea is broadcasting with the current state of their testing facilities?

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

Monday, January 6, 2020

Growth in Military Capacities Codified by Party Meetings

During the last ten days of 2019, North Korea held two major meetings, both chaired by Kim Jong Un.

The official reports on the substance of the meetings have been short on detail, but they have mentioned a few key points that can give us an understanding of what’s going on. During the “enlarged” Seventh Central Military Commission meeting, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said the, “meeting would decide on important organizational and political measures and military steps to bolster up the overall armed forces of the country…” and “discussed were important issues for decisive improvement of the overall national defence and core matters for the sustained and accelerated development of military capability for self-defence.

Stressing the point further, the report went on to say that at the meeting they rectified “irrational structure and defects in machinery and some shortcomings in other military and political activities…” This means streamlining the military bureaucracy and realigning military and related facilities to be more effective toward accomplishing national defense goals.

During the Fifth Plenary Meeting of the Seventh Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea, the KCNA reported that the agenda emphasized “the need to take positive and offensive measures for fully ensuring the sovereignty and security of the country as required by the present situation, [Kim Jong Un] indicated the duties of the fields of foreign affairs, munitions industry and armed forces of the DPRK.

While these statements are relatively broadly worded, they echo what has come out of previous meetings. The result of those meetings, policy changes, and decisions by Kim Jong Un has repeatedly resulted in the ongoing development of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and upgraded capabilities of their conventional military forces.

North Korea has generally taken a cautionary approach. When diplomacy seems to be working, they’re willing to halt major weapon’s testing. And when things start going sour, they resume provocations. But throughout it all, they have not altered any of their core military doctrine or cut themselves off from necessary infrastructure or strategic development.

The Center for Strategic International Studies, 38 North, myself, and many others have spent a lot of time monitoring not just North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic forces but also their conventional military capabilities, and one thing has been made very clear: under Kim Jong Un, major upgrades to all branches of their military have been underway. Regardless of any specifics, these two meetings have underscored this ongoing trend of modernization and the realignment of military structures.

This trend can be seen in the fact that Kim Jong Un has tested more missiles than his predecessors combined, tested the country’s largest nuclear device to-date, and, as mentioned, is currently embarking on the reorganization of military bases and expanding their training capacities.
This reorganization and the overhauling of capabilities is a keystone of what the Party has now laid out and it can be seen in the following examples.

Regarding their nuclear program, there has been a large amount of construction work in recent years at the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center, and that work is ongoing. The Pyongsan uranium mine and milling plant continues production and seems to have taken on the role as the regime’s primary uranium milling plant as the smaller site at Pakchon has been placed in caretaker status and is somewhat now redundant. Focusing on Pyongsan saves resources and allows for needed improvements at Pyongsan, such as those seen from 2013-2015.

The Tonghae Satellite Launch Station has been placed in caretaker status as well, as additional resources have been poured into the more capable Sohae Satellite Launch Station. Keeping some sites in caretaker status also gives the regime the latitude to make token concessions (such as the demolition of a single test stand) without fundamentally degrading their capacity for testing, while still being frugal by not keeping both sites at full operational status.

In keeping with the theme of centralization, Pyongyang’s General Satellite Control Center is in the process of expansion, and ongoing work at the National Defense University has been identified as its role in both ballistic research and its place within the burgeoning personality cult of Kim Jong Un grows.

The country’s missile testing facilities have likewise been streamlined. The short-lived Kalma test site was decommissioned in favor of the expanding capabilities at the nearby Hodo Launch Area. And, a test stand was erected at the Sinpo Submarine Base to enable the further development of submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBM).

Their munitions industry has also been expanding, as the Central Committee meeting has now publicly emphasized. A very recent example of this is the expansion of the March 16 Factory in Pyongsong which produces military equipment needed for their missile program. Ongoing work can also be seen at a massive underground facility and related factories in Hamhung.

Changes haven’t been limited to industrial centers or test sites. Even the ballistic missile bases themselves have been enlarged with new housing and additional support facilities. The northern base at Yeongjeo-ri has also had a large annex constructed nearby (construction was completed under Kim Jong Un).

In terms of naval power, a major, multiyear reconstruction was carried out at the facilities around Muchon, and Changrin Island (on the west coast) has had a naval base built on it. The island recently made headlines for artillery tests carried out from it. Analyst Joseph Bermudez has given a detailed report about a large hovercraft base in Yonbong-ni under construction. Such bases can be used by strategic and special operations forces to quickly infiltrate and destroy South Korean targets.

Then there’s the aforementioned submarine base at Sinpo. Not only has a missile test stand been erected but the manufacturing abilities at the base have been improved and other construction activity can be seen. The first test of the SLBM Pukkuksong-3 was carried out in October of 2019, and there is growing evidence that North Korea is building a new type of submarine at Sinpo.

As I noted in early December, the regime has taken several steps to make the most of their aging air force. Under Kim Jong Un, the capacity to train paratroopers has been nearly doubled and their airfield infrastructure has likewise been improved.

One of the goals of the Central Committee’s meeting was also to discuss ways to improve agriculture and that, too, connects with the military changes. Unessential airports have been closed and one, Kyongsong-Chuul, was recently decommissioned to allow for the construction of a massive agricultural center. This drive to increase food production in conjunction with military improvements can likewise be seen through changes at KPA Farm No. 1116. This key agricultural site in Pyongyang underwent a modernization program in 2019 and was visited by Kim Jong Un in October.

Of North Korea’s Army, the area of training has been a major focus. An important military operations on urban terrain (MOUT) base near Kangdong added 11 km of new paths in 2019 for training soldiers on how to operate various equipment. Similarly, KPA bases near Yongbyon, Pukchin, Haeju, Changdo, and Sepo have all undergone notable expansions since Kim Jong Un came to power. 
Completely new bases have also been constructed throughout the country.

This centralization effort in training allows for key bases to be overhauled and to serve as primary training facilities, instead of new recruits being sent to dozens of smaller sites around the country, each with significantly more limited resources. It also opens up space to house new soldiers, enable larger numbers to be moved around the country for construction or harvesting activities, and will give the regime the space needed to improve ongoing training of their vast paramilitary and reserve forces.

A small but important side benefit of this comes from better land-use policies. Efficiently arranged military housing and more reasonably designed training courses allows for more hectares of land to be used in farming instead of being wasted.

North Korea is rarely a mystery to those who pay attention. They broadcast their intentions in both official pronouncements from media and Party newspapers, and in their activities (which can be observed from satellites). As broadly worded as the official statements may seem regarding the two meetings, when you see the trend that has already been happening, those reports clearly reveal the state’s objectives to continue to improve their national defense abilities across the board as well as their agricultural and economic sectors.

The duel nature of North Korea’s domestic-military system has built a unique national structure that has enabled the country to survive for seven decades. The use of the military as “builder-soldiers” to construct everything from a modern skyline in Pyongyang to new ski resorts and to the reconstruction of Samjiyon, improves the domestic economy. Improvements to the country’s general infrastructure regarding communication, fuel supplies, and illicit means of sanctions avoidance enables greater military capabilities.

From threats of “Christmas gifts” to claims of new “strategic weapon systems”, the overarching policy directions proposed by Pyongyang are now reflecting what has already been happening under Kim Jong Un and ensure the establishment of needed “offensive measures for fully ensuring the sovereignty and security of the country”. To guarantee the sovereignty and security of the country, North Korea’s wider strategic position must be secured, no matter what happens diplomatically. Kim Jong Un’s refusal to ignore the less “sexy” conventional forces while also placing an emphasis on economic matters, seems to have placed North Korea in a secure position for the foreseeable future.

Additional Reading
Major Expansion at Pyongyang Training Ground - AccessDPRK, 12/17/19
Missile Bases and Major Underground Facilities - AccessDPRK, 10/23/19

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

--Jacob Bogle, 1/5/2020