Monday, April 24, 2023

Construction at Huichon

Huichon is an industrial city in Chagang Province, North Korea that has been experiencing a construction boom over the last few years.

This latest round of work would likely not have occurred if it weren't for the completion of Huichon Hydroelectric Dam No. 2 - a project that was mired in complications and may have played a role in Kim Jong Il's death. The dam along with ten other hydroelectric generating stations built along the Chongchon River from ca. 2010-2019, have a combined generating capacity of 420,000 kW.

At the start of Dam No. 2's construction, approximately ninety multi-family housing buildings were also constructed in downtown Huichon that provided space for around 500 families. 

This current ongoing construction boom began in 2020. Some of the projects have been reported on by DPRK media such as in the Rodong Sinmun and in a television program titled "The Look of a New Town" which aired in July 2020. But others haven't been officially acknowledged yet. With that in mind, I'd like to highlight some examples that can be seen via satellite imagery. 

To start, there is a kilometer-long road tunnel (40.198067° 126.278119°) that connects two other projects I'll be discussing with the rest of Huichon and the Huichon Industrial Cooperative, which is a collection of factories near the center of the city. 

Satellite imagery reveals new spoils piles, suggesting that the interior of this tunnel is either being renovated or that the tunnel is being enlarged in some way.

The tunnel area as seen on October 2, 2020.

New work at the tunnel site as seen on Sept. 1, 2022.

Although the tunnel looks like a typical road and can be accessed from one of the city's main arteries, the road only leads to and from the Chilsong Electrical Appliance Factory. This feature becomes more interesting when you consider that the hill it runs through contains a warren of other tunnels, suggestive of a large underground facility (discussed further below).

Chilsong Electrical Appliances Factory as seen in 2018.

This tunnel leads directly to the Chilsong Electrical Appliance Factory (40.202665° 126.278621°) which is in the process of being completely rebuilt.

Little is publicly available about the specifics of the factory, but Kim Jong Il visited it in March 2010 and said that the factory was an important part of the country's economic future. However, that's the only leadership visit to the factory I can find in online sources. Regardless of the exact role of the factory, the fact it is being doubled in size attests to its continued importance. 

The factory is undergoing expansion. As seen in November 2022.

In 2018, the overall factory area covered approximately 12.5 hectares. In 2019/2020 the old factory was demolished and construction of a new factory campus began. This new area covers approximately 30 hectares and includes not only typical industrial buildings but will also have a stadium (somewhat common at large industrial sites), factory museum, revolutionary history/Juche museum, a health clinic for workers, and other amenities. 

The early stages of construction seem to have been carried out quickly, but it has since stalled. Little new activity is visible between October 2020 and December 2022. This may be a reflection of the COVID-19 pandemic's economic toll on the country.

Foundations for new apartment blocks across from the Chilsong Factory.

Across from Chilsong (at 40.208419° 126.281558°) the foundations for 21 apartment buildings have also been constructed, perhaps as new worker housing for the expanded factory. Previously, only farmland and a few small houses existed on the site, but they were cleared away for the new apartments sometime between 2019 and 2020. However, like the stalled progress on the factory, only the foundations of the apartment buildings have been constructed, and the work appears relatively inactive as of Dec. 2022.

As mentioned earlier, the Chilsong factory is connected to the rest of Huichon via a tunnel. The hill the tunnel runs through has several other smaller tunnels that indicate the presence of a large underground facility (UGF) at 40.188214° 126.275511°.

The hillside is encircled by a newly built 3.5-km-long perimeter road (yellow) that can also be used to reach Chilsong and that connects to the six other tunnels (white) clustered at the southwest of the hill. There is no way to know how the tunnels are actually arranged or if there are large rooms within the hill, but I've created a speculative map of the interior tunnel arrangements based upon the location of each entrance and service adit.

There are three main entrance points to the hill. These are located together, and each entrance is protected by a small, covered structure. Previously, a series of greenhouses existed on the site as well but those have been demolished. 

Excluding the main road tunnel, if my estimated tunnel layout is considered, there are at least 3 kilometers of tunnels inside the hill.

After reviewing the available imagery, there isn't enough visual evidence to say if a factory complex exists underground or if the site is being used as a hardened storage facility. However, other "electrical appliance" factories are known to be involved in North Korea's armaments industry, and the closed-off nature of the underground facility and Chilsong factory raises further questions.

The Huichon COVID-19 isolation ward.

Within the new complex of the Chilsong Factory is one of over 80 (and counting) suspected COVID-19 isolation wards. Located in an out-of-the-way building (40.201310° 126.281072°) at the inactive construction site, the COVID ward was established in 2021. The 180-square-meter building is surrounded by a wall, has two guard posts, and all of that is surrounded by a perimeter fence. 

Public information is sparse about these facilities, but because of their high security and relatively small size, I surmise that they are used to isolate those who test positive for COVID-19 or have an otherwise unidentified fever until they either recover or need to be transported to a hospital that can provide intensive care (at least, North Korea's version of intensive care). 

As part of the overall construction in the Huichon area, this school (40.205530° 126.244176°) and nearby housing have been reconstructed. The school will be 2-3 stories in height and there have been 14 new housing buildings constructed. Each building contains 2-4 individual housing units.

Across the river from the school a further 78 houses were built totaling 156 family units. The houses are in the new "countryside" architectural style promoted by Kim Jong Un in recent years.

The last construction project I want to discuss is the ongoing work at the Hagap Underground Facility (40.081244° 126.188535°).

Hagap is an underground complex 13-km south of Huichon that has an uncertain purpose. Construction began in 1991 but after several years of work it was apparently never completed. Following a prolonged period of inactivity, activity resumed in 2016. I have written about the progress at Hagap a couple of times (in 2017 and in 2019), and work is still ongoing.

Construction activity in 2016-2019 had been focused on improving access roads and building new tunnels, but since 2019 temporary worker's housing and workshops were constructed at the front of the complex, suggesting work is now being carried out in the interior of the main underground area.

As seen in the above image, construction work and landscaping have been completed at this auxiliary entrance site.

Secret nuclear facility, underground state archive, or something else, after 32 years of construction Hagap's purpose still isn't known. However, unlike the neglected underground facility at Kumchang-ni, North Korea seems intent on giving Hagap life and warrants continual monitoring.

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters who help make all of this possible: Alex Kleinman, Amanda Oh, Donald Pierce, Dylan D, GreatPoppo, Jonathan J, Joel Parish, John Pike, JuneBug, Kbechs87, Russ Johnson, and Squadfan.

--Jacob Bogle, 4/23/2023

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