Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Ryongsong Palace Fortress

Located in Pyongyang, the Ryongsong Residence (also called Residence No. 55) is the primary family compound for Kim Jong Un and family.

Security is always tight at the various palaces and villas across the country that the Kim family uses, however, Ryongsong takes security to an entirely different level. More than just some pleasure palace with horses, ponds, and massive dining halls, Ryongsong is a keystone in protecting the heirs of Kim Il Sung. Not only is it surrounded by densely wooded hills, fences, walls, and comes with an enormous security detachment, it actually sits at the very heart of the capital's air defenses. It may be the most well-guarded residential compound in the world.

Initially constructed by Kim Il Sung in 1983, the compound has undergone many changes over the years and has helped keep the Kim family protected and in power despite rumored assassination attempts and amidst millions of starving people during the famine.

The primary compound is approximately 11.3 sq. km. (4.37 sq. mi. or 2,800 acres) There are other smaller annexes that directly abut the main facility, but they are for security, maintenance, staff housing, buffer zones, etc. The addition of these annexes brings the total area of the compound to 12.9 sq. km (5 sq. mi. or 3,200 acres).

Getting inside the compound can only be done through two direct routes, a special train station and a single access point from a highway. All other entrances into the primary compound must go through one of the annexes or other circuitous routes which prevents random wanderers from finding their way to a check point and prevents anyone from using a vehicle to try and bash their way in directly. It's simply not possible.

The main entrance is located 680 meters away from the highway, allowing security to observe oncoming vehicles. The entrance itself is consists of two thin roads parallel to each other that make their way through layers of electrified fencing and a series of walls and ditches so steep and wide that they could stop tanks. The entrance site is flanked on both sides by wooded hills providing further protection.

Further inside (about 740 meters), another ditch and fence system surround large parts of the compound. Traffic on the roads may move freely over it, but any large-scale intrusion would be forced to use those roads which would serve as a choke point and allow security to destroy whatever was coming. This internal set of fencing serves as the main encircling layer of protection. Every so often are observation posts and even machine gun emplacements.

From there, roughly 1.6 km along the road, is the primary residential compound. It has its own set of fencing, entrance gates, and other security features.

The various fences within the main residential area.

Close-up of Kim Jong Un's palace security.

Beyond the physical barriers that wrap the family in a cocoon of safety, are the guards themselves. The Supreme Guard Command (also known as the Escort Bureau) is an elite security unit of upwards of 120,000 soldiers that are tasked with protecting Kim Jong Un, his family, and any other elites he would designate. Kim Jong Un has his own personal security detail of unknown size, however Kim Jong Il's numbered some 200 personnel. Outside of that immediate pocket of protection, the Guard mans the numerous security posts and machine gun nests of Ryongsong. They are also responsible for security at all of the other palaces and assist in keeping the leadership train and elite aircraft secured, in conjunction with other special units.

By comparison, the US Secret Service has around 7,000 employees, but they're split between their duel objectives of presidential protection and fighting counterfeiting. That isn't to say anything of their amazing capabilities, but the Secret Service is greatly dwarfed in numbers.

The geography of the Ryongsong area helps protect the palace from ground attacks and the multiple, nested check points make storming Kim's personal villa practically impossible. That leaves the open skies...which aren't really all that open.

In terms of air defense, Pyongyang's airspace is probably the most well defended in history. Their weaponry may be aging but the city is still surrounded by ring after ring of air defense sites. The capital region has 19 surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites and around 400-500 anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) batteries that are arrayed into three main rings.

SAM coverage area (outermost two rings) is approximate and based on the S-125 (SA-3) system. The other four rings are based on a range of 4 miles for the AAAs (this is for simplicity as North Korea employs a mix of systems). The fourth AAA ring (yellow) is the dedicated palace air defense ring, with Ryongsong (in blue) in the middle. This simplified view was created based off of key "anchor points" and is for illustrative purposes only.

While these sites are supposed to be about protecting the capital and its 2.5 million residents, when you observe the air defense system in its entirety, you find that there is a fourth ring of AAA batteries aligned specifically for the palace, and that Ryongsong is actually within the coverage area of the entire system. Between SAMs and AAAs, Ryongsong sits at the heart of a total of six defensive rings. The complex is, indeed, the most well defended residence on the planet.

Kim's security and the reach of Ryongsong extend beyond its fences. The leadership train station at the palace connects to 20 others across the country, providing Kim with a secure and rapid way to escape to other palaces or even to an underground rail complex in N. Pyongan Province. Several other palaces are rumored to be connected to each other via tunnel as well. Ryongsong is also within six miles of an airfield and a dedicated, hardened heliport that could spirit Kim to other areas or even out of the country if needed.

North Korean ideology and law place Kim Jong Un at the head of the Korean Workers' Party, the state, and military. Underscoring that point, state media released a statement regarding the execution of Kim's uncle, Jang Sung-taek, that said, "No matter how much water flows under the bridge and no matter how frequently a generation is replaced by new one, the lineage of Paektu [Kim Il Sung] will remain unchanged and irreplaceable.
Our party, state, army and people do not know anyone except Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un."

The efforts put into Ryongsong and the protection of the Kim family embodies that reality.

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

--Jacob Bogle, 11/27/2019

Monday, November 11, 2019

Mystery at the National Defense University

Pyongyang's National Defense University (recently renamed the Kim Jong Un National Defense University) lies to the north of downtown Pyongyang in an area full of military and secret security schools and training centers. The NDU is located next to the Second Academy of Natural Science (which goes by several other names) as well as near the Kim Jong Il People's Security University.

The NDU has undergone several changes since Kim Jong Un's rise to power but one that hasn't received much attention is a small addition constructed in 2014. It was noted in the AccessDPRK Phase II map release in 2017, but I didn't know much about it and it lay forgotten until now.

The area in question is a small, tunnel-like structure or bunker that was set into the side of a hill. It also has an opening in the roof of the structure. 

Initial excavation work began in 2013 but the structure wasn't constructed until 2014. In Sept. 2014, apparent damage to the roof of the nearby white building was also observed. There has been a building on that site since at least 2000, however, it was reconstructed in late 2013.
To my eyes, the damage looks like there was a small explosion of some kind that blew through the roof. 

Since then, another building was constructed nearby in 2016 and an existing building was demolished in 2017. Additionally, during 2014, roughly 245 meters to the north-northeast of the bunker, a small structure was built on a hill. It resembles an observation hut, but there is some question if there is a clear line of sight from the hut to the bunker. It may just be an observation hut for activities happening in another part of the university compound that was simply constructed at the same time.

In Sept. 2019 I decided to try and solve this little mystery. I reached out to Joseph Bermudez, senior image analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and to Joshua Pollack and David Schmerler, both senior research associates at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, to see if they could lend any insight.

Not being a missile expert, my initial thought was that the site may have been a horizontal test structure for testing either small scale-models of rocket engines or to test certain pieces of technology. I came to this conclusion because A) the NDU has been involved with the development of North Korea's missile technology, B) I thought that the opening would allow engine exhaust to flow out without damaging the rest of the concrete structure, and C) because learning about complex systems require learning about the fundamentals first. As with rocket hobby groups elsewhere, the bunker could be used to familiarize students with simple examples of solid fuel rocket engines. 

Unfortunately, none of the three experts seemed to think my idea was right, and all gave their own various reasons for that. So, still left with a mystery, I asked them what their impressions were. 

Joseph Bermudez said that his initial thoughts were that it's either a small firing range for handguns or a small explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) site for "training/familiarization". He also said that the damage to the roof of the other building couldn't be positively identified without doing more in-depth image analysis, but that it didn't necessarily have to have been caused by an explosion.

I doubt that it is a firing range because many examples of those exist, both large and small, and none take on this form, but some kind of EOD site does makes sense.

Joshua Pollack also raised the possibility of the bunker structure having to do with explosives, either training or testing. David Schmerler called its utility for substantial testing/training into question because of a general lack of infrastructure to move vehicles and equipment around (access to the site is through dirt paths). However, small vehicles can make it to the site and small-scale experiments/training could be carried out.

In conclusion, there is no conclusion. While the general consensus is that it may have something to do with explosives, there still exists the questions of what kind of explosives (weapons, demolition, solid rocket fuel, etc.) and for what purpose (testing, disposal, training). As it stands, the site doesn't currently seem to be easily identifiable, it appears to be the only structure of its kind in the country, and generally remains a mystery. Perhaps as time goes on and newer images of the site become available its function will become clear. Until then, I have another North Korea Mystery to add to the list.

If you have a credible explanation (or better yet, proof) of what the site is or additional information that may be useful, please feel free to comment or otherwise get in touch.

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

--Jacob Bogle, 11/10/19

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Recent Growth at Yongbyon

The Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center is North Korea's primary nuclear facility. It contains multiple reactors, research facilities, radiochemical laboratories, and a uranium enrichment facility.

5 MWe Magnox reactor at Yongbyon. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Yongbyon (named for the ancient nearby walled city) was constructed from 1961-1964 with Soviet assistance. It took on the style of a Cold War-era "closed city" and is cut off from the rest of the country. It lies within a secured compound covering 24.8 sq. km and is protected by 22 primary checkpoints and internal gates. It is further defended by an array of nearly 40 anti-aircraft artillery batteries which encircle the region. Over the decades North Korea, along with its foreign benefactors, has spent billions constructing the site. Based on inflation, the initial start-up costs of Yongbyon was over $4 billion (or $500 million in 1962 dollars).

While Yongbyon is contained within a defined security perimeter, it is divided internally into two main sectors: the civilian, residential area (also known as Bungang-ri) and, to the east, the nuclear facilities themselves which form an axis of distinct research and production complexes centered along the Kuryong River that flows through the area.

Over the years, Yongbyon has grown substantially. New housing, new reactors, and new laboratories keep popping up. Even when the reactors enter stages of relative inactivity, the surrounding site continues to expand. The unofficial nuclear truce between North Korea, the United States, and South Korea that the country's leaders have tried to create in recent years hasn't done much to halt the growth of Yongbyon.

Until recently, the "newest" Google Earth imagery of the area was from 2016. Reporting by groups like 38 North have noted the occasional new building being constructed over time as they have focused on specific parts of Yongbyon and purchased newer commercial images for that reporting.

Recently, however, Google Earth updated their imagery for the entire area. Dated October 13, 2019, we can now immediately observe three year's worth of changes over miles and miles of territory in and around the nuclear site. It also gives us a chance to observe changes missed by other reporting or totally ignored (such as the residential area).

After looking over the closed-city, I was able to note 23 changes in the form of new construction or buildings being repaired/renovated.
You'll note that most of the changes occurred within the residential zone and inside the administration/reactor zone (where the 5 MWe and 50 MWe reactors are located).

I'll start with changes to the residential zone (Bungang-ri).

The two main changes in this area shown is that several new apartment blocks are under construction and the road has been widened. Apartments were also built in 2016. Access to Yongbyon is severely restricted and you must have the necessary permits to live there (and must receive permission to leave). This means that any large population growth is purposeful and comes from the government bringing in new scientists, engineers, and their families.

Concerns have been raised over the years about the health and well-being of the thousands of people that live here and work at all of the various facilities. While residents receive better food rations, greater opportunities for their general advancement in life and the advancement of their children, the area is reportedly heavily polluted. In 2019, a former resident of Bungang-ri told DailyNK that,

"In other districts it is very difficult to find people with cleft lip but here there are many individuals with crooked mouths, those lacking eyebrows, incidents of dwarfism, and those with six fingers. There are even children who just look like bare bones."

Near the city center, even more apartments have been constructed. These are around six stories in height. When added to the ones discussed above, at least 300 new apartment units have been constructed since 2016. Going further back, it's likely the population of Bungang-ri has grown by 2,000-2,500 under Kim Jong Un, based on the number of apartments constructed since 2011.

Construction of the noted underground site began in 2004 and is one of several within the complex.

Population growth has led to the need to build other, non-residential buildings. At least three have been added (or are currently under construction) and there may be a fourth under construction as well. One interesting note, as gas stations have proliferated at major cities across the country, one isn't visible in Yongbyon. There are plenty of reasons why that may be, but one could be because the average citizen can't leave or go trading as easily as people outside of Yongbyon, so the regime doesn't see a need to build a fueling site for passenger vehicles.

Yongbyon's sealed nature has likely created a situation where the regime's propaganda, cult of personality, information controls, and level of market activity have all been less subjected to change or challenge verses the rest of the country.

This next image shows changes to the primary administration and research zone. Multiple structures are in the process of being constructed and at least one appears to be undergoing some kind of renovation. I have also highlighted an addition to a research facility that was built in 2016.

To the immediate north, two new structures can be seen next to the IRT-2000 research reactor building. The reactor was provided by the Soviet Union in 1965. The Soviets provided North Korea with a total of 42 kg of highly enriched uranium until 1990. Pyongyang has said that the reactor produces needed isotopes for medical research and treatments, but the reactor can also produce tritium for their weapon's program. By 2011, it was widely believed that the Soviet-supplied fuel had all been used. However, it is now suspected that the reactor is using domestically created fuel.

The garden has existed for many years and is part of the regime's mandate that military units, schools, factories, and pretty much everywhere else do their part to solve the country's food problem. The food could be eaten by those working there or it may be sold in markets to earn currency. Looking at all of Yongbyon, you'll find nearly every free space of land is being used for cultivation. If defector and witness reports are correct about major pollution, then any food grown here will also be contaminated. This echos problems seen at other nuclear-related facilities, such as the uranium mine and milling plant at Pyongsan.

Several changes can be seen at the Yongbyon reactor zone. A new office building was constructed, and two smaller support structures built. The heavy-lift crane site has also undergone significant changes.

The crane structure was first erected in 2011 as part of the construction of the experimental light water reactor. The long, angular structure could be warehouses or contain a conveyor system. This was noted by 38 North and shows that the changes began in 2017 and continued into 2018.

While there are questions about the current operational nature of the reactors, the area has been very well maintained, had new construction, and stands ready to resume work whenever the orders are given.

Between the reactor zone and the nuclear fuel production zone lies a facility for maintenance and supplies. A large new building is currently under construction there. Its size and the visible structures inside suggest that it is likely an administration building to coordinate various construction and maintenance activities around Yongbyon.

The compound holding North Korea's uranium enrichment and nuclear fuel production center has likewise seen several additions.

Two small buildings have been constructed next to the enrichment facility, a building has been added to the isotope facility (lower right), and a building that had long appeared to have been abandoned has been repaired/reconstructed.

The new building at the lower right was pointed out in a 2018 report by 38 North.

Lastly there is some construction work happening right outside of a main security compound to the east. Two buildings are currently under construction (space for a third exists but no foundation work has begun). I don't know if the site is directly related to Yongbyon but it is extremely close to the electrified fence that surrounds the complex and is next to a key entrance point.

Not only is it possible to see that many changes have happened since 2016 (which, of course there would have been), but we can see that there are structures currently and actively being built. All of this points to an active city with a growing population, improved research and production capabilities, and is substantial evidence that North Korea isn't giving up on their nuclear program anytime soon. The continued mining and milling of uranium at Pyongsan, the fact that almost every building along the 17-km stretch of Punggye-ri still stands, and new progress toward creating submarine-launched ballistic missiles paints a picture very different than the one promoted by various media and political outlets.

Handshakes, signatures on paper, and hope all must give way to what is actually happening on the ground. And what is happening on the ground is telling.

This report also speaks to the ongoing need for continuing updates to Google Earth and other freely accessible products that give access to satellite images of the globe. Buying enough commercial imagery to cover all of Yongbyon can run into the thousands of dollars and places restrictions on research. While commercial entities enable individuals and news and research organizations to look at very recent images of specific sites, which does provide immense value, it also places limits on more comprehensive research into larger areas and often means that a good deal of North Korea gets overlooked.
However, so long as Google Earth (and even general map providers like Bing) continue to provide the world with their services, the democratization of research can continue. Be it looking into North Korea, changes to the Amazon rain forest, new internment camps in China, or the agricultural outputs of France, the world relies on open access to information.

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

--Jacob Bogle 11/1/2019