Monday, September 16, 2019

The Great Songwon Mystery

I have a page of "mysteries" for the #AccessDPRK Mapping Project. They're sites that I either don't know what they are, can't firmly identify, or would like more specific information on (like different palaces). One of those sites is in North Pyongan Province and it has a tunnel, water running out of it, and an electrical substation. Obviously it's a hydroelectric plant, right?

The problem is that there isn't a dam or reservoir nearby, neither is there a gravity-pump setup. So where's the water coming from?

I sat with this little mystery for a few years because there was no obvious source of water. Could it be some secret underground facility and the "stream" coming out of it is just drainage? North Korea does have plenty of those, but then other aspects of the site didn't really make sense for it to be an underground military base or factory. So, as I said, I sat with the mystery.

I was recently researching some of the country's large dams and came to Songwon Dam in Chagang Province, about 42 km away from the first site. Every source that mentioned Songwon said that it was a hydroelectric dam. There's one problem with that. Songwon doesn't have a hydroelectric generator, not even one downriver like many other hydroelectric sites do. Now I'm sitting here with a hydroelectric dam with no generator in one province and an apparent generating site with no dam in another province.

The next step was finding out that the apparent mines in the area form a lovely 42km-long straight line from Songwon directly to the mystery site. In fact, they're not mines at all, but the excavated debris from one heck of a tunneling project - a tunnel that takes water from the Songwon reservoir and to the hydroelectric generating site. Thus, Songwon is a hydroelectric dam. It just makes its electricity in the neighboring province. Songwon was completed in 1987 and Landsat/Copernicus satellite imagery also shows construction work happening at the "mystery site" in 1987, too, further verifying their connection. A happy little mystery is now solved.

It seems like North Korea isn't done creating these huge tunnel systems. There's the newly finished Wonsan People's-Army Power Station in Kangwon Province. It, too, has a tunnel taking water from the reservoir to a generating station that, in this case, is 28 km away.

Having the generating site farther away from the dam means that you can get a greater change in elevation which will increase the water's speed as it moves downhill. The faster water moves the more momentum it has, and that means it can turn turbines faster, generating more electricity. If a dam is 200 feet above sea level, you'll get a lot more electricity generated if you have the generating station at 30 feet above sea level vs. at 150 feet by making that water drop 170 feet instead of just 50.

The Wonsan dam is at 1,800 feet and the first generating station (there's two) is at about 680 feet, a massive drop. However, they could have achieved the same amount of elevation drop using a tunnel 10 km shorter if they went toward a different direction. The same is true of Songwon. From the intake site to the generating station there's a ~560 foot drop...spread out over 42 km! In the case of Songwon, that elevation drop could have been accomplished by placing the generating station 25 km downriver.
However, the tunnel would not have been able to be in a straight line, making construction more difficult. It appears that the Wonsan tunnel could have been in a straight line to reach the shorter distance, so I don't know why they opted for the longer journey instead.

The next image is a picture of an intake tower with a similar layout as the one at Songwon. The "window" on the tower is to let air in to prevent a vacuum from forming and damaging the system.

Water intake tower at the old Desna Dam, Czechia. Source: Wikimedia.

The last thing I'll say about Songwon is that even though the reservoir is massive (it covers 18.3 square km and has a capacity of 3.2 billion cubic feet of water according to the FAO), the amount of water coming out of the generating station is very small. The size of the electrical substation is also rather tiny compared to the ones at other large dams. This is because the water intake point is actually at the surface level of the reservoir. If the reservoir is even slightly low, water wont flow into the tunnel to turn the generator. This means that despite the enormous effort North Korea put into constructing everything, it doesn't seem to be generating much electricity in return. Of course, North Korea isn't exactly known for their efficiencies - be it efficiencies in design, labor, or cost, the regime really seems to like expending huge effort for little gain.

I want to give a quick shout out to my Patreon supporters: Kbechs87, GreatPoppo, and Planefag.

--Jacob Bogle 9/15/2019

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Punggye-ri Nuclear Facilities Still Stand

North Korea tested their most powerful nuclear device on Sept. 3, 2017. The bomb was estimated to have had a yield of between 100 kt and 250 kt, which is the upper reach of the test mountain's ability to contain the explosion. In other words, a larger bomb could have destroyed the mountain (Mt. Mantap).

After the test, the world seemed to be bracing for a war between the United States and North Korea. What happened next made history. In November North Korea stopped every kind of test related to their WMD programs: ballistic missiles, nuclear, everything. The North also took the unprecedented step of blowing up the tunnels (also called portals) used to test their nuclear devices at Punggye-ri in May 2018.

While many hailed this decision, others pointed out that the much promoted "destruction" only destroyed the portal entrances. There's no evidence the vast tunnel system beneath Mt. Mantap was destroyed. This left open the opportunity for the site to be reclaimed once the small amount of debris was cleared out. According to a statement from the Institute for Science and International Security by David Albright:

"North Korea’s action is better than a freeze and represents a disabling of the test site. However, like many disabling steps, North Korea could likely resume testing at the site after some weeks or months of work. Although the main mountain is unlikely to be usable, other nearby mountains could be used. And two of the portals (numbers 3 and 4, using North Korean nomenclature) were apparently intact and usable for further nuclear explosions prior to the dismantling steps conducted."

Despite that warning, relations continued to thaw. And then on June 12, 2018, a sitting American president and a leader of North Korea met in person for the very first time. The Singapore Summit was short on details and formal disarmament agreements, but North Korea maintained its own nuclear and missile testing moratorium for a year. However, since Nov. 2018 (a year after tests stopped in 2017), the country has tested over a dozen short-range missiles during seven different launching events.
Additionally, after dismantling a test stand at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in June 2018, the test stand was reconstructed in 2019. Oh, and let's not forget the continued production of uranium at the Pyongsan uranium milling plant.

So what do the resumption of missile testing and the reconstruction of weapon sites have to do with Punggye-ri?

This image shows the north portal as it was in 2015. All of the various buildings are standing and the site is operational.

The below image is after the May 2018 demolition. You can see that the portal area has been disturbed by the explosions and the support buildings are gone.

Free open-source satellite imagery from Google Earth shows that while some of the tunnel entrances were indeed destroyed, the entire rest of the nuclear complex is still standing. This strongly suggests that North Korea was never serious about engaging in any activities that would substantially or permanently disable their ability to develop and test nuclear weapons or long-range missiles. It also backs up what David Albright (and others) have said, North Korea could rather easily resume testing if they desired.

Punggye-ri is located in North Hamgyong Province and lies adjacent to the Hwasong concentration camp. (I raised concerns about prisoners being used for slave labor at the site back in 2017.)
Starting at the small village of Punggye-ri, the testing complex runs over 17 km north along a river valley that eventually leads to the base of Mt. Mantap, where the tunnels are and the testing occurs.

This series of images will take you from the tunnels (portals) and down along the valley until reaching the train station. They will show, without doubt, that other than the initial demolition of select facilities near the portals, the entire complex still stands.

As of March 2019, all of the sites within the northern administration area are still standing, including the checkpoint.

About 700 meters to the south of the northern administration area is a set of barracks. There hasn't been any change to them since the May 2018 "shutdown".

Further south is the second security gate. Maintaining these internal security points (which are north of the main entrance location) would not be necessary if the facility was permanently decommissioned.

Still moving south, 5.8 km away from the second gate, is another set of barracks and support buildings.

This southern area has barracks and a set of agricultural buildings. Portions of the valley are used to grow the crops eaten by the personnel stationed at Punggye-ri. Lush fields of various crops can be seen on an image dated October 11, 2018. Five months later and the fields are resting for winter and the buildings still stand as seen in the above image.

The southernmost part of the testing complex is the central administration area. It deals with logistics, supporting overall operations, and manages personnel housing. It, too, is fully intact.

Finally, there's the train station and main gate.

If the site had been permanently closed, it makes sense that the gate would remain to prevent people from walking into a dangerous area, however, when its existence is combined with the rest of Punggye-ri, it leaves little doubt as to its continued survival as a future nuclear testing site. Additionally, the train station hasn't been altered in any way. The civilian village of Punggye-ri only has a few hundred residents, the train station would only need to keep one of its two platforms to maintain domestic rail service.

The unchanged status of Punggye-ri has been further verified with newer imagery from DigitalGlobe as recently as July 2019 by 38 North. Two years on from their last test, the site's continued existence calls into question the wisdom of increasing funding by over 10% of the Inter-Korean Cooperation Fund, to hit a total budget of $1.18 billion. The fund's purpose is to help establish peace and grow economic ties between the two countries. However, North Korea has a history going back decades of defaulting on loans, stealing equipment, demanding even greater payments, and commandeering joint projects (like the industrial site at Kaesong.) They do this while surreptitiously continuing their weapons program and engaging in countless illicit acts to bypass sanctions and earn even more foreign currency.

Punggye-ri's ability to be quickly restored, the reconstruction of the Sohae missile launch site, the repeated missile tests resuming in 2018, and Pyongyang's massive infusion of cash into their conventional forces are all none-to-subtle hints that they will not stop being a threat, no matter how earnest the Moon and Trump administrations would like to make friends.

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

--Jacob Bogle, 9/3/2019

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Work at the Hagap Underground Facility Continues

Hagap is a large underground facility that lies right across the provincial border in Chagang Province, near the International Friendship Exhibition (in North Pyongan Province).

Landsat/Copernicus satellite imagery shows that Hagap was constructed in 1991 (although it seems the US intelligence community didn't learn about it until 1996). By 1998, within the public sphere, Hagap was suspected of being one of North Korea's centrifuge facilities and was often mentioned in the same breath as the site at Kumchang-ni. At the time, the Defense Intelligence Agency said, "There is one site, of an unconfirmed function, that possibly could be a nuclear-weapons-related facility by 2003...The function of this site has not been determined, but it could be intended as a nuclear production and/or storage site."

Changes at the Hagap site are visible between the 1990 and 1991 images.

Hagap, as with Kumchang-ni, seems to never have been completed and certainly never became a functioning nuclear site. But questions started being raised about Hagap, specifically, despite the initial insistence by the Pentagon that it was a nuclear site. These questions were made more relevant by the fact that, after being inspected by an international team, Hagap didn't appear large enough or well suited to house a nuclear reactor or serve other related purposes.

As mentioned earlier, Hapag is near the International Friendship Exhibition, a mere 5 km away. This and other reasons (some I mentioned above) has led to some analysts calling into question its nuclear purpose. The other idea is that it's actually being turned into a massive records storage complex; Pyongyang's answer to Iron Mountain.

In 2017 I first reported on new work being conducted at both Hagap and at the IFE. The construction at both sites seems to have begun in 2016 and continues to this day. Before I get into the alternative purpose for Hagap, I want to go over these ongoing changes.

The above image shows the site as it appeared in October 2013 and after work had resumed in October 2016, after many years of apparent inactivity. The main difference is a large pile of excavated debris.

Aside from the pile of excavated material, additional areas of activity could also be seen around the site.

By 2019 what the "other activity" was turning into became clear.

The large pile of rock was in fact debris from tunneling operations to create a new entrance to the site that would allow vehicles inside. The other activity was the construction of a road that led into the facility.

The new entrance site is very clear on this April 10, 2019 image.

Access to Hagap is a small access road that comes off the Pyongyang-Huichon Highway. There is no obvious security gate or fence system that surrounds the complex. This leads me to suspect that it isn't an important nuclear-related facility. While there are coincidences in timing between construction periods at Hagap and construction periods at known nuclear sites, that's about the only similarity.

And even as a weapon's storage site, Hagap seems to be ill fitted. For one, having a central storage site for your most important weapons isn't a good idea. A major strike could wipe them all out. Secondly, Hagap is at least 50 km away from the nearest suspected ballistic missile base. Moving weapons to there from Hagap, up and down winding, unpaved roads, would leave them vulnerable to observation and attack for extended periods of time.

The other two suspected nuclear sites, Kumchang-ni (in North Pyongan Province) and Yeongjeo-ri (in Ryanggang Province) are both positioned far into a closed valley and cover large areas. They have support buildings spread throughout and have perimeter security. The same can be said for nearly all of North Korea's ballistic missile sites. And while Yongbyon isn't hidden, it is surrounded by air defense and has multiple security fences and checkpoints. Hagap doesn't have any of these things, and though it is tucked away in a valley, it only takes up a relatively small footprint, plus it's just a mile off the main highway and doesn't appear to have any military units on-site to provide protection.

Hagap does have housing but they're not typical "harmonica houses" or in barrack form (both styles dominate military housing). They're small apartment blocks next to what may be administrative buildings. And finally, work has been taken to "beautify" the area with tree-lined roads, ponds, and a lovely central building at the main entrance. On the other hand, Yongbyon looks like any factory town and the uranium plants at Pakchon and Pyongsan are plain industrial sites. Only the Kim's are worthy of a forested campus.

Whether Hagap was envisioned to be a nuclear or research facility that was later re-purposed into an archival facility or whether it was always supposed to be an Iron Mountain we may never know, but the site's rural location and it being underground mean that anything inside would be likely to survive even the most catastrophic of wars or rebellion. And with all of the "gifts" being transported to the IFE, Hagap is nearby to receive more serious cargo. After three generations, Kim Jong Un is having to save the country his grandfather created. He must also ensure that the history of the country (both official and real histories) is saved. Hagap looks to be the perfect place for that.

I'd like to thank my supporters on Patreon: Kbechs87, GreatPoppo, and Planefag.

--Jacob Bogle 9/1/2019