Thursday, January 5, 2023

Pyongsan Uranium Plant Reservoir Expansion

On New Year's Eve, following the Sixth Enlarged Plenary Meeting of the Party's 8th Central Committee, Kim Jong Un laid out his plan to "exponentially increase" the number of nuclear warheads North Korea has. Current estimates are that North Korea has enough fissile material for up to 55 warheads, has assembled ~20 weapons, and has a production capacity of one bomb every two months. 

Publicly announced plans are rarely made prior to any foundation work being done. Whether its massive new farms, high-rises in Pyongyang or new weapons, by the time an announcement is made the plans are often already in the process of being carried out.

To dramatically increase the number of warheads, the country would need to ramp up uranium and plutonium production. On the uranium front, the Pyongsan Uranium Concentration Plant is North Korea's primary facility for the production of yellowcake uranium (80% uranium oxide). From there it is sent to the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center for enrichment to weapons-grade uranium. The number of centrifuges at Yongbyon is a major bottleneck in their ability to increase the manufacturing rate of warheads, but there are signs that North Korea has been trying to resolve this as well.

At Pyongsan, the waste material from the plant is sent to a reservoir about 300 meters away, across the Namch'on River. I have written about the deficiencies of this reservoir and the risk of river pollution from the complex, but it seems like North Korea has been planning for its continued use through ongoing uranium production for some time.

Depending on the exact height of the dam, the current reservoir has 35 hectares (86 acres) of usable space. In 2006, the visible area of precipitated waste sediment was roughly two hectares (4.9 acres). That had increased to 6.1 hectares (15 acres) by 2017. 

There is some variability in what can be seen and measured due to seasonally changing water levels within the reservoir, but the area of visible waste now covers at least 13.2 hectares (32.6 acres); however, the solid pile has nearly reached the same level as the top of the embankment dam and has blocked off one of the reservoir's main lobes, limiting the reservoir's lifespan and risking flooding/overtopping events each time there's heavy rain fall. 

Historic extent of visible waste material for 2007, 2017, and 2022.

If Kim Jong Un is serious about adding dozens or hundreds of new warheads to his arsenal within the next decade or so, Pyongsan is going to need more space to hold its toxic waste, and it looks like that is exactly what's happening now.

Google Earth now shows a reservoir expansion that's in the early days of construction. The current reservoir sits within a series of low hills and shallow valleys. The valley immediately east of the reservoir is being prepared to serve as a future storage site. 

In early 2022, a mere 120 meters away, a trench was constructed leading from the current reservoir into the new valley. And at the end of the valley, nearly a kilometer away, the foundations for a new dam were being excavated. 

This 175-meter-long trench will carry a pipe from the old reservoir and into the valley along the path of a small stream, allowing it to fill using gravity.

Nearly a kilometer southeast of the trench, this future dam will block the valley to create the reservoir. It will be around 165 meters in length.

Depending on the finished height of the dam (as constrained by the abutting hills), the usable size for this new waste reservoir could be between 16 and 19 hectares (39-47 acres). The current reservoir was constructed in 1990, but activity at Pyongsan has historically not been constant, with several periods of little-to-no production. But if the last ten or so years of production levels are any guide, this new reservoir could hold another 15-20 years' worth of waste material on top of what can still be added to the existing reservoir, which could still be operational for the next ten years depending on the depth of its western lobe.

Since the current reservoir still has life, there may not be a need to rush the construction of this new site. But the fact it has been planned and initial work carried out speaks to the long-term plans of Kim Jong Un, and that is to keep uranium production going for as long as possible. 

One thing that I will be interested in watching for is whether or not the new reservoir will be lined with protective sheets (the current reservoir isn't) or if any mitigation efforts will be undertaken to prevent leaks into the ground water and into the larger Ryesong River which is just 2 km away and flows toward South Korea. 

All of this is happening as 2022 became a record year for the number of missile tests carried out, far surpassing any other. And it is happening following announcements in 2021 surrounding the development of tactical nuclear warheads, hypersonic glid vehicles, and continued work on submarine launched ballistic missiles. Kim Jong Un has made it very clear he wants to develop a dizzying array of new weapon systems, and the expansion of this reservoir is a practical infrastructure step toward enabling North Korea to engage in the types of industrial activity needed to eventually produce them in the long-term.

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Alex Kleinman, Amanda Oh, Donald Pierce, GreatPoppo, Joel Parish, John Pike, JuneBug, Kbechs87, Russ Johnson, and Squadfan.

--Jacob Bogle, 1/5/2023

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

AccessDPRK in 2022

This last year was a great one for AccessDPRK, and thanks to your continued readership and for the support of Patreon backers, 2023 has some very cool things in store.

There were two main events for the AccessDPRK project in 2022. The first is that I completed the series Kim Jong Un's First Decade in Power. Spanning twelve articles written between August 2021 and February 2022, it represents one of the most detailed records of his first decade as leader of North Korea and it was the most ambitious writing project that I've undertaken for the blog.

The other big thing for the year was being featured in an episode of Super Users for VICE World News. The online episode "What North Korea Doesn't Want You To See" was published on September 21 and has since received nearly 4 million views. 

Thanks in part to the video, the blog also received the most annual traffic ever, surpassing 2021 by over 40%. On Twitter, the account gained over 300 new followers and the most popular tweet for the year was introducing the article about North Korea's largest underground facilities which got over 50,000 impressions.

This went on to spur some media attention with reporting in Metro, UNILAD, and The Sun.

With the 14 articles published this year, the blog now contains 156 articles that equal the equivalent of 1,063 pages of material and includes 1,023 images. I have also made public 14 city briefs out of the 36 that have been created so far, and I will continue to publish the rest this year. 

As part of those articles, I was able to review over 1,500 air defense sites and create the most up-to-date map of all of their locations, I detailed the layout of the DMZ and its various fortifications, and I was able to shed some more light on North Korea's large underground facilities as well as archeological sites.

The top 3 most-read articles for 2022 were:

1. The Largest Underground Sites in North Korea

2. Tunnels to Nowhere

3. Phishing for AccessDPRK

Looking to 2023

There are always things left to do and new ideas for the future. As I mentioned last year, I started working on a book and I will continue that this year. I will also keep publishing the existing city briefs, but those were created with the help of a dedicated sponsor and the future of that project is uncertain, but I will address that more when the time comes.

I have ongoing mapping projects for housing, land reclamation, and military land usage. They are rather large projects but I'm hoping to finish at least one of those this year while also maintaining regular posts here. (I perpetually have a list of 15-20 article drafts to work on, so there's always going to be something to share.)

Additionally, since last year I have been assisting Human Rights Watch with a major report that's related to North Korea's anti-pandemic efforts and how they've impacted the economy. The exact publication date hasn't been set but it should be sometime this spring.

Lastly, I have begun to review and update the 2021 map. Whether or not this gets turned into a full-blown new version or simply an occasional update I haven't decided. Regardless, there's been around 4,000 additions, improved categorizations, and other changes made so far. In the end, most of the changes won't involve new places mapped (although there will be plenty), but I'm wanting to focus on its usability and on adding as many relevant details as possible (construction dates, official names, types of equipment, related news stories, etc.) There is no timeline for this, it's just something that I want to start digging my teeth into.


Over the years AccessDPRK has helped alert South Korean authorities to the risk of industrial pollution from North Korea, was the first to detail activity at the Kyo-hwa-so No. 88 prison, created the first detailed surveys of North Korea's gas stations and monument construction under Kim Jong Un, and has kept tract of everything from border control changes to missile bases and market activity. Information from AccessDPRK has also been used in reports from RAND Co., NK News, 38 North, DailyNK, JoongAng Daily, Nikkei, RFA, Asahi Shimbun, UPI, the OECD, and many others. 

Patreon supporters enable me to devote more time to mapping, in depth research, and writing. With support levels ranging from $3 to $20 a month, rewards can include getting article copies before they're published, having locations personally analyzed by me, and even get access to sections of the 2021 Pro Map.

If you're not able to support the project on a monthly basis but would still like to help, you can also help with a one-time $5 donation via Buy Me a Coffee.

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Alex Kleinman, Amanda Oh, Donald Pierce, GreatPoppo, Joel Parish, John Pike, JuneBug, Kbechs87, Russ Johnson, and Squadfan.

For past annual reviews, see 2021, 2020, 2019, and 2018.

--Jacob Bogle, 1/3/2023