Monday, December 25, 2017

Pyongyang's Thirty Years of Growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tongil Street area in 2017. 

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

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

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

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

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

Modern Mirae Scientists Street, also nicknamed "Pyonghattan".

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

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

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

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

Some of the rural areas with newer housing.

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

Unnamed village in Pyongyang that was demolished in 2017.

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

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

--Jacob Bogle, 12/25/2017

Additional reading
1. 2008 DPRK Census Report (PDF)

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Possible NK Atmospheric Nuclear Test

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Possible suitable locations for an above ground nuclear test.

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

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

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

--Jacob Bogle, 12/12/2017

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

Thursday, November 2, 2017

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

By now, nearly everyone in the Western world has heard about North Korea's collection of massive prison camps. There are at least 35 jails and concentration camps in the country (including annexes), all holding around 200,000 prisoners. However, there are estimates that there may be another 10 re-education camps and there are other smaller prisons as well.

Locations of North Korea's main prison camps.

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

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

In the 2017 report The Parallel Gulag, HRNK discusses a separate, parallel prison system apart from the country's wider known system of massive concentration camps. The report details 20 sites and all share similar design characteristics between each other and the hundreds of other compounds that were mapped as part of #AccessDPRK.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With the publication of The Parallel Gulag, we can now definitively say that North Korea's system of concentration and labor camps, prisons, and local detention facilities is much larger than many realized. Considering I knew of so many similar facilities throughout the country, I reached out to North Korea analyst Joseph S. Bermudez (who also aided in the analysis of satellite imagery for the HRNK report). I gave him a few examples of the sites I had mapped, and he gave me his opinion on each one. As with Twitter, he, too, said they were a mix of detention facilities, barracks for local military/paramilitary units, and agricultural related facilities. However, he also said that a lot more study needed to be done.

Map showing the additional sites of interest.

Without further study and defector testimony, we may never know precisely what each of these locations are. However, I have located 632 such sites all over North Korea, which would mean there is a full order of magnitude more of these sites than fully functional hospitals in the whole of the country. With stories of "orphan jails", the now revealed parallel system of jails, the knowledge of historical "black sites" (like The Barn), and the highly secretive nature of the regime, it is safe to bet that at least some of these facilities are previously unknown prisons.

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

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

--Jacob Bogle, 11/2/17 (updated 5/10/2019)

Saturday, September 16, 2017

NoKo's Underground Nuclear Nightmare

UPDATE: On October 31, 2017, Japanese media are reporting that a large tunnel collapse occurred at the site, killing around 200 people. This has yet to be confirmed.

On September 3, 2017, North Korea conducted its sixth and largest (by far) nuclear test. North Korea's only nuclear test site is Punggye-ri in North Hamgyong Province. At this point I want to say that this post is speculative in nature and that there is little concrete evidence to support what I am suggesting. However, there is anecdotal evidence and a logic to it. Enough so that I feel this is worth discussing.

The main tunnel at Punggyi-ri also happens to be less than 2 miles away from the boundaries of the Hwasong concentration camp (Kwan-li-so 16).

The apparent location (based on USGS information) of this most recent nuclear test lies a mere 0.3 miles (0.5 km) away from the camp fence, and North Korea's first test in 2006 appeared to have taken place inside the camp itself (underground, of course).

I believe the proximity of Punggye-ri and Camp 16 (with its 20,000 prisoners)  may be important.

There are multiple reports by defectors (including testimony by Ahn Myong-chol, a former guard at Camp 22), that North Korea has a history of using prisoners in medical experiments, including testing chemical weapons, as well as prison labor for the construction of sensitive military facilities, including underground sites.

Based on the relative locations[n1] of each of the nuclear tests, the underground tunnel system is massive, with the majority of test sites more than 3 miles away from the main tunnel entrance. The Sept. 3, 2017 test is almost 5 miles away! This means lots and lots of tunneling work.

A few small mounds of debris can be seen at the entrances of the various tunnel entrances; however, the amount of debris is nowhere near enough as would be required for excavating a tunnel a mile long, let alone multiple tunnels. A very basic tunnel 1 mile long, six feet tall, and six feet wide would create 190,080 cubic feet of material. However, an image released by North Korean TV suggests their tunnels aren't simply a straight line (which could easily become disastrous during testing).

This suggests that the North Koreans are using material from new tunnels to back fill the old tunnels after each nuclear test, as the growth of the outside debris mounds do not entirely reflect the growth that would be needed if they were dumping all of the excavated materials outside. The fact radioisotopes can be detected outside of the country after some tests, shows that their testing site is far from sealed, thus it would be necessary to mitigate the slow continual release of radiation by filling up used tunnels with the material taken to construct new ones. Unfortunately, the discovery of visible changes to the surface of the mountain raises the likelihood that further releases of radiation will happen.

Back to Hwasong, it's not beyond the realm of possibility that the regime is taking advantage of this nearby and captive workforce to do the difficult and dangerous task of constructing these testing tunnels. There is a fair amount of evidence that prisoners are used to construct the thousands of tunnels and underground facilities that have turned much of North Korea's ground into Swiss cheese. And, there are even occasional but brief comments that can be found in media sources that touch on the idea of these prisoners being used to do the hard work at Punggye-ri.

Average citizens are subjected to terrible conditions in the country's coal mines, and even in uranium mines and enrichment facilities safety is practically nonexistent, with workers developing multiple radiation-related illnesses. Political prisoners on the other hand aren't even considered citizens. Their very title of "human" appears to vanish along with every right and privilege that otherwise exists in North Korea.

Using these men to dig, repair, and fill the tunnels has several benefits to the regime. Here are four benefits that immediately come to mind:

1) The government doesn't have to worry about paying wages or properly feeding them, saving large sums of money.
2) There are no families to deal with whenever a loved one comes home with a shattered leg or dying from radiation exposure (or coming home in a body bag).
3) Due to the way such prisoners are managed, using them provides a large level of greater secrecy and security. Even loyal soldiers may inadvertently spill sensitive information to friends or family. Who are slave laborers living behind electrified fences going to tell?
4) Using expendable lives saves the lives of more valuable people.

We do know that the tunneling process itself is fairly basic. North Korea doesn't have the ability to employ the large modern mining or tunneling equipment other industrial countries have. Using dynamite, hand tools, brute force, and small carts to carry away rocks is about all they have. Satellite imagery confirms this is true at Punggye-ri, too, as the simple equipment can clearly be identified.

Beyond the horrors associated with working hour after hour and week after week near incredibly toxic mixes of radiation and heavy metals, there are also dangers faced by nearby populations.

The northern part of Korea has always been neglected. This was the case during the historic dynastic period and was the case during North Korea's famine - when supplies were cut off and redirected to the more "important" capital region. Punggye-ri is located in the northernmost province. Of North Hamgyong's 2.5 million inhabitants, nearly 2 million lie directly east and north of the nuclear site, which means any radiation release will spread to those areas on wind currents.

Absent full-on containment failure, where plumes of material is tossed into the atmosphere, partial failures can still release Cesium-137, Iodine-131, and Strontium-90, all of which can spread by the wind and contaminate the ground (and thus the grass, which in turn will contaminate any animals eating that grass and eventually the people eating the animals). Seepage of Krypton-85 and Xenon-133 through cracks in the mountain can also contaminate the area. Krypton-85 has a half-life of 10.7 years, meaning if any was released by the first nuclear test back in 2006, half of it is still hanging around. To add context and bring this closer to home, the National Cancer Institute published a study in 1997 that showed 2,800 cases of thyroid cancer in the US each year can be attributed to our own nuclear tests during the "underground era" (1962-92).

Continuing research by 38 North suggests that major fractures may have developed in the mountain, and that further large-yield nuclear tests could severely destabilize the site and release enormous amounts of radioactive debris.

We may never know for certain if prison labor was used to build these miles of tunnels and what, if any, effects have happened as a result of radiation contamination, but the fact there's enough anecdotal evidence and internal logic to support the basis of this post is very disturbing. The world already knows about the routine torture, rape, murder, forced abortions, and starvation that goes on in North Korea's prison camps. The world knows about the lasting harm to people living in the US and on small Pacific islands near nuclear testing sites. I don't see what's so difficult about expecting that the two scenarios would merge in North Korea when all of the pieces are laying in front of us.

--Jacob Bogle, 9/16/17

1. All of the locations are based on coordinates given by the United States Geological Survey. These coordinates are only approximate and may be off by over a mile.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

North Korea's Sacrificial Islands

When North Korea isn't firing intermediate and long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) from highways and hidden factories, they're firing hellish amounts of smaller artillery. For the past several years, some of the recipients of these displays of military might have been two small islands off the coast of Wonsan.

The islands of So (So-do) and Hwangto (Hwangto-do) have been pummeled multiple times. Most recently in April and August 2017, December 2016, and March 2016. This video, originally from the Korean Central News Agency, discusses the August drills and shows images of the islands.

English-dubbed Video Source: StimmeKoreas

Both islands lie off the Kalma Peninsula, which is where the Kalma Airport is located (North Korea's recently modernized airport). Kalma is also the site of two rocket launch pads and has seen at least one failed rocket test.

So Island is approx. 6.7 km east of the tip of Kalma (among a small group of islands) and, farther south, Hwangto Island is 2.45 km east of the beach. At the tip of the peninsula are several villas, a sanitarium, and a possible hotel.

(Click on images for larger view)

Without further ado, here are the island martyrs.

So Island has a more recent history. Prior to 2014, the island appears to have served as a small outpost, perhaps for local fisherman. It contained a few buildings on the western side, and the rest was left alone. The buildings were demolished in late 2014.

So Island is a mere 460 meters by 293 meters at its widest points. As noted earlier, So Island was the target of an artillery drill in December 2016. The image below shows the results of that barrage.

This is a picture from the Korean Central News Agency showing the island being hit during the 2017 drill. The large island seen the background is Sin-do.

Image Source:

Next is Hwangto Island, which has a longer history of being a bombardment target.

Hwangto is slightly larger than So at 587 meters by 295 meters. In the image below, shelling damage can be seen from a drill that occurred not too long before May 17, 2011. There is also a small building that has been demolished. 

On both islands, the structures seem to have been manually demolished rather than destroyed as a result of artillery. 

The above image shows the various prepared firing positions along the beach at Kalma. These sites are angled to line up with the the target on Hwangto Island.

In this KCTV picture from April 2017, the firepower displayed is rather impressive. An estimated 400 pieces of artillery were used.

The below image is the most recent on Google Earth. Dated Dec. 8, 2016, you can see the damage done from additional artillery drills as well as a new target. That target was used during the April 2017 drill.

Thanks to the support of OpenDPRK, I can now show you the results of this recent onslaught. 

The largest craters are 10-13 meters in diameter. 

These displays of might happen a few times each year and usually coincide with major holidays or as a response to US-ROK drills. 

I wonder how many more artillery drills it will take before the cliffs at So Island collapse?

--Jacob Bogle, 8/30/2017

Friday, August 25, 2017

Kim Jong-un's Spy School Gets Upgrade

North Korean soldiers during an annual military parade.

One of North Korea's main espionage facilities, located in northern Pyongyang, is growing.

North Korea (with their several government agencies and branches of the military) has a long history of espionage and infiltrating South Korea. The DPRK also has one of the most active cyber warfare units in the world. Both the military and various agencies have a substantial amount of overlap.

According to defector Ahn Myung-jin, one of these facilities (which is near Kim Jong-il Political-Military Academy, also a spy school) is under the Strategic Division of the Central Party Espionage Department. The espionage training annex has a large underground facility with a tunnel 12 meters high, 30 meters wide, and 8 km long. It contains scale models of Seoul, important buildings like the Blue House, and even "functional" areas where officers can get used to going to shopping centers and using currency. The training period within the tunnel can last 15 days to a month each year.

As a reminder, clicking on the images will allow you to see larger versions.

This Google Earth image shows you the location of the espionage center (top) and surrounding points of interest.

Given its association with the Kim Jong-il Political-Military Academy, it is probable that this site is under the control of the General Reconnaissance Bureau, which is in turn controlled by the National Defense Commission (instead of the Korean Worker's Party which has its own intelligence agencies).

In this image from 2013, you can see the key areas of the center, including the underground tunnel entrance which also has an insert from another angle to allow you to see the actual opening. The two "areas of interest" are the main sites that will be changing.

On Nov. 9, 2015, commercial satellite imagery showed a building undergoing some type of alteration. The building had been emptied and the roof removed. It also shows that a collection of greenhouses near the main gate had been removed.

Fast forward to May 2016, and the first building mentioned above has been torn down to its foundations. A new building can be seen under construction as well.


The latest freely available commercial imagery is dated April 22, 2017. There is a lot of activity that can be seen.

The first buildings pointed out in earlier images are basically completed. However, there is new construction going on in two additional sites, plus a further building being torn down. The entrance gate is also undergoing some kind of an upgrade.

These changes will add at least 32,000 square feet (2,972 sq. m) of additional floor space. The site labeled "New Construction Site" is the location of an earlier building that has been demolished. If a new building is constructed and occupies the same footprint, that would modernize a further 39,000 sq. ft (3,623 m) of space.

To top it all off, the monuments are being changed, too. As I have written about extensively, monuments to the leaders (as part of the pervasive personality cult) are an integral piece of every military and civilian institution in the country.

The original monument was a group of 4 bronze figures, as seen above. The monument has existed since at least 2005. Sets of solar panels are also visible. These panels can first be seen in March 2016.

What is interesting is the lack of a central statue of Kim Il Sung (joined by statues of Kim Jong-il after his death in 2011). Nearly every major site in the country has such statues (to go along with murals and other smaller monuments).

It appears they've rectified this. On the April 22, 2017 image, the group of statues has been removed and now only spaces for two new ones are visible. This change also suggests, in my opinion, the elevation in importance of this complex.

In this image you can also see a close-up of some of the building construction going on. Near the statue place (which is on top of a mound) are piles of construction/landscape materials. The monument mound will be resurfaced with grass and other plants, the stone steps leading up to the statues themselves will be new, and it's likely the whole courtyard will be refaced with new stone.

The solar panels have been removed as well. It's probable they were only used to help power necessary construction equipment or needed lighting since a stable supply of electricity is still a problem, even in Pyongyang.

There are many examples of military locations being modernized, and various related construction projects are underway all over the country. While specifics are hard to come by for most of these places, what we can learn from satellite imagery is that large sums of money are being poured into defense (from the regular Army and Navy, to the Strategic Missile Forces and covert operations agencies). With this site in particular, we can see that an increased training capacity is being planned (as evidenced by the added square footage) and that the nation's leadership is keeping a close eye on the place, making its importance greater.

--Jacob Bogle, 8/25/17

Additional Reading
(38 North Special Report, by Joseph S. Bermudez, June 2010)

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Why Are We in Korea and Why Do We Care?

Image Source:

Once again tensions are high and concerns of impending nuclear Armageddon can be heard from some of the more embellishing talking heads on cable news. North Korea's nuclear and ballistic technology has rapidly advanced under Kim Jong-un and their path towards becoming a fully capable nuclear weapons state is appearing much shorter than many had projected. 

Kim Jong-un has tested more missiles than his father and grandfather combined, and the individual components of a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile capable of hitting the US mainland seem fairly complete. The main hurdles now revolve around joining those components together into a functional weapon. That isn't to say North Korea is only a matter of days or weeks away from having a true nuclear missile: the mating of a miniaturized warhead onto a missile has its own difficulties, and there are other questions surrounding the program. But with North Korea threatening to fire missiles into the sea near the US territory of Guam (a major cornerstone of our ability to operate in the Pacific), and with President Trump likewise threatening "fire and fury" against any Northern threat, many question why we're even involved in Korea in the first place, and why do we care. Particularly among younger generations. After all, the Korean War earned the moniker "The Forgotten War" in my father's generation. If it was "forgotten" then, how much more distant must it seem to the proceeding generations?  

So, why are we there and why do we care?

A little backstory is required. A unified Korea was occupied by Japan in 1910. After WWII, the USSR took over the northern half of the Korean peninsula and we took over the south with the agreement that at some point in the near-ish future, a free and general election would be held under UN supervision so that the Korean people (they’re all the same blood) could decide if they wanted to be a free and democratic country, or set up a communist state.

That election never happened. The Soviets took a small-time anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter named Kim Il Sung and installed him as leader, and we put in the Harvard and Princeton educated Syngman Rhee. Both sides claimed to represent all of Korea (even now, defectors who make it to the South are automatically granted citizenship) and both sides wanted to reunite the peninsula under their respective systems. After a few years, the American and Soviet troops withdrew from Korea. Not wanting to wait any longer and assuming the US wouldn't come back to defend an Asian backwater, Kim invaded the South in 1950 with overwhelming force. However, since the United States pledged to help keep our new ally safe from Communism, we certainly did come back (under the authority of United Nations and with dozens of other countries directly supporting the war). The resulting war the North initiated left half a million Allied soldiers (including 140,000 Americans) dead or wounded, and over 2 million Korean casualties.

No peace treaty was ever signed, but an armistice was signed in 1953, technically putting the war on hold. And our agreement with South Korea turned into a formal treaty, also signed in 1953, to which we are still bound. The Mutual Defense Treaty requires each country to come to the aid of one another in the event one is attacked. I feel it's important to note, that South Korea has sent troops and matériel to assist all major conflicts the US has been a part of since that time.
As part of the terms of the Treaty, American forces were to be stationed in South Korea to help prevent another invasion. This "status of forces agreement" is updated every so often.

Image Source:

But it's been 64 years since the armistice was signed! Why should we remain?

Since the signing of the 1953 Armistice (which created the Demilitarized Zone -DMZ), North Korea has violated the terms of it over 220 times. North Korean soldiers hacked to death with axes two American soldiers on the southern side of the DMZ. North Korea captured the USS Pueblo and tortured its crew. North Korea has kidnapped hundreds of Japanese and South Korean citizens. North Korea has bombed South Korea islands, sunk Southern ships, and launched a raid on the South Korean president’s residence in an assassination attempt. They even continue to secretly lay landmines by infiltrating the DMZ. 

North Korea has sold weapons to Cuba, Iran, Syria, and others (and worked with them on nuclear matters). They have supported terrorist groups like the radical Japanese Red Army. They blew up a passenger jet killing all 115 on-board. They have engaged in economic warfare against the US via counterfeiting US currency. They are a large source of illegal drugs (like methamphetamine) in East Asia, and a source of other counterfeited goods. (For more information, read Criminal Sovereignty: Understanding North Korea's Illicit Activities by the Strategic Studies Institute.)

North Korea attempted another assassination attempt on a South Korean president, this time while he was visiting a foreign country. The bomb, planted in Rangoon, killed 21 and injured 46. Kim Jong-un also murdered own brother by using a WMD (VX nerve agent); the use of which in a foreign state is an act of terrorism.

Even if you ignore the nuclear weapons (and their long-held desire to develop them going back to the 1950s, and their continual threats to use them), North Korea still controls one of the largest conventional militaries in the world. They have over 1 million active-duty soldiers, 180,000 special forces, enough artillery within range of Seoul to lob half a million shells into the city within the first hour, and nearly 6 million belonging to reserves and paramilitary organizations. Plus numerous underground and hidden sites throughout the North that store fuel, food, and munitions to launch a full-scale war and carry it out for 6 months before reserves run out.

US-ROK 2010 Naval Exercise "Invincible Spirit". Image Credit: US Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class (SW/AW) Adam K. Thomas

OK, but other than protecting South Korea, what do we get out of it?

Besides keeping our word? The Korean peninsula has been a contested region for thousands of years. Its importance today has not diminished. Some of the world's most important trading routes pass through and near Korean waters. The combined GDPs of South Korea, China, and Japan equals nearly $18 trillion, or more than 20% of the entire world's economic output.

Bilateral trade between the United States and South Korea amounts to $112 billion annually (up from $82 billion since 2007). Globally, South Korea is a key production center of electronics like cell phones, LCD screens TVs, and semiconductors, as well as automobiles, shipping, and petrochemicals. South Korea's impact on the global economy amounts to over a trillion dollars, and during periods of heightened tensions, global markets connected to the region tend to slow down and even drop until the immediate threats end. Aiding in the defense of South Korea enables that trade to continue to grow. It preserves the jobs of countless American workers who work for South Korean firms here and sell South Korean goods (and the many products that rely on parts from South Korea). It helps stabilize the overall world economy by keeping shipping lanes and factories open, allowing products that are vital to every industrial nation to get to their destinations.

Despite signing an armistice to end hostilities, North Korea has a 64 year-long history of open and active aggression. In the event of a war, yes, they’d lose. That isn’t quite the point. The North wants to harass and intimidate South Korea into giving them massive amounts of concessions (which has happened before). They want to hold the South hostage via threats and cause them to weaken and buckle. And yes, they want to preserve their regime, but that regime's survival means not having to reform their economic and political systems. It means the continuation of starvation, torture, attacks against its neighbors, and the perpetuation of one of the longest-running prison camp systems in world history.

The world is faced with a handful of choices that can be boiled down to two: do we accept a nuclear-armed North Korea, or do we prevent that from happening? The implications of either choice are not simple nor are they necessarily comforting, but the time to figure out which path we're going down is closer than ever. And despite which path we (and they) take, the fact remains, it is in America's best interest to help guide this long tale to its conclusion.

Further Reading
1. Terrorism and the Future of North Korea at the UN (AccessDPRK, March 2017)
2. The Nuclear Question (AccessDPRK, March 2013)
3. Arsenal of Terror (Joshua Stanton/HRNK, 2015)

--Jacob Bogle, 8/13/2017

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Price of the Cult of Kim

(To save and read for later, you can download the PDF here)

Figure 1: Visitors bowing before statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il at the Mansu Hill Grand Monument. (Image credit: Commons/J.A. de Roo)


While state-directed personality cults are nothing new, the magnitude of the North Korean personality cult surrounding the ruling Kim family surpasses any other. The cult’s main foundations are structured around the thoughts and orders of the Kims. Having a large effect on the nation’s economy, culture, and military, the cult and its associated “Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism” (the revolutionary political and philosophical thought of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il) has been described as the primary focus of the country and a central motivation behind the activities of the government. [1][2]

The amount of resources dedicated to the construction, maintenance, and expansion of the cult over its decades of existence has cost the country billions in direct and indirect costs. The funding apparatus of this system features heavily within the bureaucratic hierarchies and helps to “grease the wheels” when it comes to providing assets for military programs and large construction projects; ostensibly to enable the construction of a “strong and prosperous nation”. In a country where one man rules with an iron grip and in which no major decision can be made without him, the use of the cult (and its mix of nepotism and bribery) is essential to Kim Jong-un’s ability to preserve his power and to direct resources to the parts of the economy he wishes to improve. However, the net effect of this has led to a byzantine system of kickbacks and inefficiencies that have hampered economic growth and progress as enormous efforts and monies are redirected away from the general economy to keep the system functioning.


The personality cult began soon after Kim Il-sung came to power in 1948. However, its intensity and the level of resources dedicated to it vastly expanded during Kim Jong-il’s rise to power as he elevated his father in an attempt to secure his own eventual succession as the unquestioned leader after his father’s eventual death in 1994 (after death he was then elevated to the position of Eternal President). Part of the cultural foundations of the cult that have allowed it to take root and survive for so many years, stem from Korea’s traditional imperial and Confucian past and its highly patriarchal nature. 

Additionally, in light of Korea’s history of reliance on and subjugation by outside forces, the development of Juche in the early history of North Korea (in practice, a mix of self-reliance and nationalist racialism) makes more sense. In such a context, the invention of a supreme leader (or Suryong) who is vested with the “will of the people” and who alone can guide and protect the nation is understandable. Since then, the cult has been embellished, refined, and expanded with each generation of Kim, as though by Divine Right. All fundamental documents and guiding principles of North Korea codify and are bound by the cult: the Constitution, the Juche Idea, and the Ten Principles for the Establishment of a Monolithic Ideology. It touches on every aspect of life: education, daily work, the economy, art, and the military.

In order to enforce the cult in the minds of the people, there are approximately 10,000 individual stone and bronze monuments throughout the country [3], and every train station, government office and home must contain images of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un (images of other family members, like Kim Jong-suk, can also be found). Many schools contain miniature models of Kim Il-sung’s Mangyongdae birthplace, and even the various places the leadership has visited become elevated; with ink pens used or benches sat upon turned into mini-shrines. [4] The most obvious evidence of the enormous resources poured into the cult is easily found in the thousands of monuments, propaganda signs, and museums which cover the nation.

Figure 2: Map showing some of the over 40 monuments in the city of Nampo. (Satellite base image: Google Earth, May 18, 2017)


The impact of the cult on the economy and culture is a complicated matter, not just due to the opaque nature of North Korea as a general rule, but also because so much of its effects aren’t as obvious as the many statues.

Perhaps the easiest area to review is in terms of hard dollars. There are no firm estimates about the overall cost of the cult, either in direct costs such as those of constructing monuments, or in the muddier costs due to its effects on education, its general impact on culture, etc. Having said that, the estimates that have been published vary somewhat as to the cost of maintaining the cult, with lower bound figures at $40 million to $100 million annually. [5][6] This doesn’t necessarily take into consideration large single expenditures such as the renovations to the Kumsusan Memorial Palace. In 1994 Kim Jong-il ordered the palace converted into Kim Il-sung’s mausoleum at a reported cost of $100 million. The palace underwent further changes after Kim Jong-il’s death in 2011. Upper bound estimates suggest several billion (note A) are spent each year on direct glorification of the Kims and indirectly via "cultural" and other spending which serve as a conduit to spread government propaganda.

Going further back in time, many of the costs of the cult during the Kim Il-sung-era are generally lacking, making acquiring firm estimates for that period even more difficult. What is known is that projects such as the original 1972 golden statue of Kim Il-sung at the Mansudae (Mansu Hill) Grand Monument, with a value estimated at $851 million, so appalled visiting Chinese dignitaries that it was later replaced with a bronze version [7], and that such large-scale projects have been blamed for part of North Korea’s economic decline in the 1980s, [8] with a famine following in the 1990s.

Figure 3: Monuments at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang. (Image credit: Google Earth/DigitalGlobe, October 4, 2016)

After Kim Jong-un’s rise to power, in part to help secure his rule due to his young age and perceived lack of experience, the government took rapid steps to build up a cult around him. At the same time, the state worked to escalate the veneration of Kim Jong-il - during which the government installed him as the nation’s second eternal leader: the Eternal General Secretary of the Korean Worker’s Party. The roughly 3,000 “Towers of Eternal Life” which were erected after Kim Il-sung’s death have been modified to include references to the eternal life of Kim Jong-il. And, based on a review of satellite imagery, included in the escalation of the Kim Jong-il cult was the construction of twenty-seven bronze statues in major cities to be placed alongside those of Kim Il-sung (some of which were replaced with newer versions). These statues range in size from 5.3 meters in height to the large 23-meter tall Mansudae statues. Additionally, approximately 150 five-meter high murals of Kim Jong-il were installed next to existing murals of Kim Il-sung in county seats and other towns.

Figure 4: Twenty-three-meter-tall statue of Kim Il-sung at Mansu Hill, Pyongyang. (Image Credit: Google Earth/NASA, April 10, 2011)

Figure 5: Image showing the newly installed statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il at Mansu Hill. (Image Credit: Google Earth/DigitalGlobe, Nov. 26, 2014)

Figure 6: Jangdae Hill, Pyongyang. Left: A mural of Kim Il-sung in 2010. Right: Twin murals of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il (installed in February 2011). Image credits: (Left) John Pavelka/Flickr; (Right) Wikimedia Commons.

Not to be out done, some monumental works glorifying Kim Jong-un are large enough to be seen from space, like a half-kilometer long sign in Ryanggang Province which reads, “Long Live General Kim Jong-un, the Shining Sun of [North Korea]!” Additionally, plans are now underway to place stand-alone “mosaic murals” of Kim Jong-un in each provincial capital. Funding of the cult comes not only from government sources, but also from the people themselves in the form of “loyalty payments” exacted from each citizen and business.

One area that is difficult, but not impossible, to estimate costs are in terms of misdirected labor and lost production due to the cult. Each year millions of man-hours are committed to constructing and maintaining facilities, preparing for parades and mass games, and on other projects. This continual labor is done in spite of regional food shortages, the flooding of cities, and other problems which could otherwise use that manpower to address those difficulties. The largest example of mass labor is the 100,000 people who train (unpaid) for months to produce the Arirang Mass Games each year. If we assume a base salary of $100 per month and calculate 351 hours of training per person, we reach nearly $22 million in lost pay for other work that could have been done instead of putting on a propaganda performance. [9] An account of what went in to Arirang can be found in the book In Order to Live, by defector and human rights activist Yeonmi Park, who wrote: 

"Most impressive were the thirty-thousand to fifty thousand children who had trained for many months to sit in the risers behind the stage, holding up colored squares like a living mural to create enormous, ever-changing scenes and slogans glorifying the regime. Only much later did I realize how abusive it was for these children to preform for hours and hours without even a small break to eat or use the bathroom." 

It’s important to look at the overall costs of non-penal forced labor as well (as those in the country's vast prison camp system are generally thought unworthy to participate in the glorification of the Kims). According to Open North Korea, a Seoul-based NGO, an estimated 400,000 people form a class of laborers called dolgyeokdae. These workers receive little pay and are required to work on major construction and prestige projects that the leadership can show to the world. Apart from general construction, work on monuments is part of their duties. All of this results in the leadership’s continued ability to boast about building a strong and prosperous nation. A feat that, according to the cult, can now only be done under the “wise leadership” of Kim Jong-un. The value of the labor is estimated to be $975 million annually.

Figure 7: Arch of Triumph, Pyongyang. Dedicated to the period of “Anti-Japanese Struggle” under Kim Il-sung. (Image Credit: Google Earth/DigitalGlobe, Oct. 4, 2016)

Less easily accounted for are the indirect costs to the nation’s ability to innovate and engage with international partners. From grade school to university, much of a student’s academic career is spent learning about the deeds of the leadership, so much so, that even elite students may struggle with relatively simple scholastic tasks.

Yeonmi Park speaks to the ordinary education of children, too:  "In the morning, after we finished cleaning the streets or polishing the monuments, we were marched off to class." And, "In the classroom every subject we learned...was delivered with a dose of propaganda... This worship of the Kims was reinforced in documentaries, movies, and shows broadcast by the single, state-run television station." Later on she recounts, "As soon as you are in school you are drilled in the 10 Principles of the regime...You learn the principle of juche...and you are taught to hate the enemies of the state with a burning passion." 

She continues, "In North Korea, even arithmetic is a propaganda tool ...[and] any mention of the Kims had to be preceded by a title or tender description to show our infinite love and respect." 

Figure 8: Tower of Eternal Life and "Juche Study Hall" at Pyongyang University. (Image Credit: Google Earth/DigitalGlobe, Sept. 7, 2015)

Society and the Cult

The role of the public education system in instilling the tenants of the cult in the people can’t be overestimated. One of the first phrases children learn to speak is “thank you, Father Kim Il-sung”. [10] Similar to Christians thanking God before a meal, all North Koreans are taught that their food, housing, education, leisure activities, etc. are given to them by the grace and love of the leadership. This isn’t an abstract notion of gratitude either, but rather it is giving thanks for what is seen as the benevolence of the leadership, literally to each person individually, and without which they would go hungry.

North Korean society is divided into three main classes under the Songbun system. This system is how the government determines who gets what. What kind of careers and educational opportunities will be available, who can marry whom, and more. The top class of people are those who are seen as the most loyal while those at the bottom are seen as “hostile”. Political crimes and crimes of thought (such as questioning the regime) are considered to be some of the most serious offenses and can result in the “criminal” and their family being sent to a prison camp. In this way, one’s place in the very fabric of society is tied to one’s obedience and acceptance of the leadership and Party.

Recurring rituals, like the laying of flowers at statues, or the regular “self-criticism” sessions during which people are supposed to acknowledge their faults and the various ways they let the Great Leader down (even for the most minor offenses), have enabled the indoctrination of millions of North Koreans for generations into the Cult of Kim. Nearly every holiday is concerned with the Kims. The “Day of the Sun” is Kim Il-sung’s birthday, for example. Through these events people can prove their loyalty and maintain their positions, or be raised up (or made low). These times also serve as opportunities for the government to prove that the Leader is indeed the great benefactor of the people. Gifts proportionate to each citizen’s Songbun class are distributed during major holidays. Holidays are also times when the government tends to announce new large construction projects or the success of military projects, thereby validating (through exaggerated propaganda) what they have been telling the people year-round.

The cult can be looked at as a double-edge sword. It has the benefit of creating a fairly obedient and docile society who are bound to their fatherly leader, but it also results in huge amounts of money, labor, and material (as well as human lives) being expended to glorify the leadership. The loyalty payments the government demands from the people (along with other sources of income) creates a kind of “court economy” that can be used for anything from statues to ballistic technology, which in turn raises the risks of new international actions against the state. By spending so many hours teaching students about the great feats of the Kim family, a nation with millions of hard working people can be mobilized to complete massive projects at a frenzied pace. But it also results in less innovation. And a lack of understanding about trade hobbled the recovery after the famine as people were forced in order to survive into crash courses in economics in the streets at nascent, illegal markets. That disconnect between the government and the economic reality on the ground has enabled even more corruption and uncertainty to take hold. [11]


For those things that can be seen and measured, so long as the government continues to demand absolute fealty, millions will continue to be spent on stone edifices that dot the landscape and in countless other ways to remind the people that ‘without him, there is no us.’ [12] The people’s heart-felt dedication to the cult may have diminished since the days of Kim Il-sung, but it remains, nonetheless, an integral part of the whole society. This entrenched reality makes it highly unlikely that there will be any fundamental changes in the near future as any such changes would alter the structure of the cult and weaken the Kim's position. Additionally, outside attempts to diminish the cult (and thus its hold over the nation) through sanctions or other hard power methods are unlikely to have much effect, as the country itself relies on upholding the cult. Those in power remain in power through their loyalty and by finding ways to help finance the desires of Kim Jong-un. Likewise, those wishing to rise in influence can only achieve their wishes by contributing to the Cult of Kim. The best example of this was the rise of Kim Jong-il himself, who, prior to the years of work he engaged in the idolization of Kim Il-sung, was not originally seen to be a probable successor to his father.

One only needs to look at the remodeling of the Korean Revolutionary Museum, [13] the expansion underway at the underground vaults of the International Friendship Exhibition, or the Tower of Eternal Life in Pyongyang, which recently underwent renovations, to verify the continued outlay of resources on the personality cult and to see that Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism remains "the only guiding idea of the party" and nation. [14]

Figure 9: Scaffolding is visible on the Tower in this image dated October 4, 2016. (Image Credit: Google Earth/DigitalGlobe.)

Figure 10: Image from KCTV April 2017 broadcast showing the opening of Ryomyong Street and the Tower of Eternal Life after renovations. 

Additional Reading
1. Who Are They? - Some Historical Perspective, Frontline/PBS
2. The 1st Marxist Monarchy, The Washington Post (1978)
3. North Korean Cult of Personality, Wikipedia

A. A 2007 study by the Korean Institute for International Economic Policy reported that state expenditures on the cult grew from 19.5% of the nation's budget in 1990, to 38.5% by 2004. Outside of the military, which is a separate economic and budgetary entity within North Korea, Professor Rüdiger Frank suggests that the national budget can be viewed as synonymous with the economy. If this is the case, 38.5% of an approx. $23 billion GDP (2004) equals $8.8 billion.

1. Jin-sung, Jang, Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee – A Look Inside North Korea. New York, NY. 37INK/Atria, 2014. Page 132.

2. Kim Jong-un, The Cause of the Great Party of Comrades Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il is Ever Victorious, Foreign Languages Publishing House, October 4, 2015.

3. The number of monuments is derived from a four-year long mapping project by the author.

4. Oberdorfer, Don Carlin, Robert, The Two Koreas A Contemporary History, New York, NY, Basic Books, 2013. Page 16.

5. Kim Jong-il Personality Cult 'Cost $40 Million', The Chosun Ilbo, August 25, 2012,

6. Mike Firn, Kim Jong-il personality cult costs North Korea £62m, The Telegraph, December 5, 2012,

7. Becker, Jasper, Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea, New York, NY, Oxford University Press, 2005. Page 150.

8. Martin, Bradley, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, New York, NY, St. Martin's Griffin, 2006.  Pages 322-323

9. The figure is derived using a base salary of $100/month. Each participant trains for at least 90 minutes a day, six days a week from January to September. That gives 234 days of training (six-day weeks), multiplied by 90 minutes equals 351 hours per person. 351 hours equals 2.19 months’ worth of 40-hour work weeks, or $219 in would-be salary per person. Multiplied by 100,000 participants and you reach $21,900,000.

10. U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Thank you, Father Kim Il Sung: Eyewitness Accounts of Severe Violations of Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion in North Korea. November 2005. Page 1

11. Babson, Bradley O., The North Korean Economic System: Challenges and Issues, International Journal of Korean Studies, Vol. XX, No. 1. DPRK Economic Forum, U.S.-Korea Institute, SAIS, Spring 2016. Page 156

12. “Without you, there would be no us!” is a verse from the North Korean song “No Motherland Without You” about Kim Jong-il.

13. Remodeled Korean Revolution Museum Opened, Rodong Sinmun, April 1, 2017

14. Rüdiger, Frank, North Korea in 2012: Domestic Politics, the Economy and Social Issues, Brill Publishers, 2013. Page 45