Sunday, February 25, 2024

A Review of the Sunchon Kyo-hwa-so

Located in the mountains west of the city of Sunchon, near a village called Unbong-dong, is a little-known reeducation labor camp (kyo-hwa-so) at 39.436033° 125.795551°. 

Kyo-hwa-so are for those prisoners the regime considers "redeemable". Detainees are required to undergo ideological training and must endure forced labor. According to the UN Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry report, detainees are also likely to experience beatings, torture, sexual assault, and starvation rations. 

Photograph of similarly sized Samdong prison in South Pyongan Province. Photo: Asiapress, August 2009.

Several kyo-hwa-so have been the subject of detailed reports through the work of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea and other organizations, but the Sunchon facility has no known survivors to offer up witness testimony. It was mentioned in the 2017 report Parallel Gulag, but I would like to take this opportunity to lay out its developmental history in detail.

Despite the sparsity of direct information, it is known that the prison is a gold mine that relies on forced labor. And through the analysis of satellite imagery, a lot more can be learned. 

The earliest commercially available high-resolution image of the camp is 2002. A review of Landsat imagery shows activity at the site in 2001, but there's little indication of a prison or mining activity prior to that; although, there is low-level deforestation at the site beginning in the late 1980s. If the prison existed before 2000, it was quite small. 

Sunchon Kyo-hwa-so in 2002.

In the December 9, 2002 image, buildings exist at the prison site but there are no obvious security features such as a fence or perimeter wall, and no obvious guard posts. 

This site is one of the first of what will become an extended mining region, and another mine entrance exists at this time 1.3 km to the west at 39.442718° 125.781264°.

Sunchon Kyo-hwa-so in 2006.

The next available image is from 2006. By then, a perimeter wall clearly surrounds the detainee facility and encloses an area of 1,400 sq. meters. The building covers approximately 280 sq. meters. The main mining facility and tailings pond were also enlarged.

Other mines near the kyo-hwa-so in 2006.

Elsewhere in the immediate region, additional mining sites have opened up by 2006, but none appear to be prisons.

Sunchon Kyo-hwa-so in 2009.

By May 2009, a new wing of the detainee facility was constructed, enlarging the building to approximately 370 sq. meters. This could indicate an increase in the number of detainees held at the prison. Also, the two corner guard towers were reconstructed.

Additionally, a small building immediately to the east of the detainee facility was razed.

The main mining building was also reconstructed and takes on the appearance of a typical ore processing plant, and a second tailings pond was opened. 

Sunchon Kyo-hwa-so in 2010.

By September 2010, where the building was razed in 2009, a new building was constructed in its place. The new building is ~210 sq. meters which is more than double the size of the older building. It could be associated with the prison's administration, but that can't be said with certainty. 

Based on the tailings ponds, mining activity during this period was being carried out at a consistent pace.

Sunchon Kyo-hwa-so in 2013.

Between 2011 and 2013, the detainee facility was enlarged yet again, with a further 80 sq. meters added.

Activity at the other nearby mines also increased at a similar rate to the activity at the kyo-hwa-so mine. 

Sunchon Kyo-hwa-so in 2017.

Between 2016 and 2017, a fence was added to partially block off the mine from the rest of the surrounding area. Prior to this time, there was no clear delineation between the mine's territory and the outside, civilian area.

Construction also took place at the detainee facility, with the addition of new walls (although incomplete in September). That work was finished in October 2017, bringing the size of the building to approx. 500 sq. meters.

Sunchon Kyo-hwa-so in 2019.

By the end of 2019, a more robust perimeter fence was constructed around the mine, completely enclosing it, and three guard towers were also added.

Close-up of the kyo-hwa-so detainee compound in 2022.

Between 2020 and 2022, the main administrative building of the mine was reconstructed. The mining facilities were also further developed.

Sunchon Kyo-hwa-so in 2022.

Based on the imagery, prisoners are transported from the walled detention facility to the mine via truck. The distance from the gate at the detention facility to the gate at the mine's fence is only ~36 meters, and then it's a further ~90 meters to the primary ore processing building.

View of the other mines in the area in 2022.

The other mines in the area have all been further developed and grown, but none of them have indicators of being part of the kyo-hwa-so, and thus likely do not use forced labor.  

Citing the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, Parallel Gulag says that this kyo-hwa-so has an estimated detainee population of 400. Given the multiple expansions of the detainee barracks, I think it's possible that this prison now holds as many as 600 people.


Between the large kwan-li-so concentration camps, kyo-hwa-so reeducation camps, pre-trial detention centers, local labor training centers (rodong kyoyangdae and rodong danryondae), and military prison camps, North Korea operates a constellation of several hundred* penal facilities. The eight largest prisons are estimated to contain 205,000 detainees.

As evidenced by the Sunchon kyo-hwa-so, these detainees aren't simply serving a prison sentence but are used to help supplement state revenue. Millions of dollars' worth of gold and other minerals are extracted, and military uniforms, textiles, foodstuffs, furniture, shoes, and numerous other products are produced in the country's prisons. The revenue from those products can then be used by the Kim Jong Un regime to fund its other activities. 

Although some prisons have been closed in the last 15 years (the Hoeryong and Yodok camps), Pyongyang has merely been consolidating its prison camp system and putting resources into extracting as much as possible out of its captive population.


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

--Jacob Bogle, 2/24/2024


*Note: the Ministry of Social Security and the Ministry of State Security each operate short-term detention/interrogation facilities in nearly every county in North Korea. Additionally, the full extent of military-operated camps (such as Camp 607) and local "labor training centers" has not yet been discovered. 

Sunday, January 21, 2024

DPRK's Fuel Transport and Storage Network: an Introduction

North Korea doesn't have its own domestic supply of oil and relies on legal and illicit transfers of petroleum products for its economy to function. While AccessDPRK has documented the proliferation of gas stations around the country, those exist parallel to North Korea's traditional oil storage and delivery network, which it has maintained for decades. 

Pyongyang-Kaesong Highway gas station at 38.973769° 125.719252°. Image: Wikimapia/Mar12.

In much of the world, going to your local gas station is how most individuals get fuel. There are stations for cars, trucks, and there are dedicated fueling depots used for institutions that have large fleets of vehicles like municipalities. But until recently, getting fuel in North Korea wasn't so simple.

Sixty-nine percent of the 190 gas stations identified by AccessDPRK have been built under Kim Jong Un, and even those aren't enough to cover every town and village - let alone the needs of factories, universities, collective farms, and other organizations that operate multiple vehicles and pieces of equipment.

So, most organizations still rely on an older system of refueling. 

While the specifics of how this system works remains little understood, I feel that I have been able to locate enough of the infrastructure (which is often buried underground or in hardened structures) to write an introduction to this system that serves as the backbone of fuel delivery and storage in North Korea.

To place this system in context, I'll quickly review North Korea's petroleum infrastructure.

North Korea is only allowed to legally import 4 million barrels of unrefined petroleum products and 500,000 barrels of refined petroleum products (like gasoline and kerosene) each year under United Nations' restrictions.  

North Korea imports petroleum products via ship and rail transfers as well as from a single pipeline coming from China into Sinuiju, the PRC-DPRK Friendship Oil Pipeline. North Korea has two refineries but largely relies on the Ponghwa Chemical Factory which is nearest Sinuiju. 

This map shows where North Korea's refineries and main oil terminals are located.

From its refineries and system of storage depots at key coastal terminals, legal (and an ever increasing amount of illegal) petroleum products are then transported to intermediate depots around the country. 

As mentioned, part of the fuel is sent from those terminals via rail and then truck to the country's gas stations.

But as you can see, they are not evenly distributed around the country and also only provide a limited storage capacity.

The bulk of the nation's fuel gets stored elsewhere, at facilities large and small, and can then be transported to factories, farms, and other organizations that need to fuel their own vehicles and equipment.

Map of just some of North Korea's internal petroleum storage facilities.

I currently have nearly ninety of these internal storage sites located. As mentioned earlier, most of the facilities are either underground or located within covered/hardened bunkers, making their identification difficult. Most, however, are near railways and so I believe I will be able to locate a considerably greater number of them in the future.

But with the sites that have been located, I can show each of the steps from the main terminals down to the local level.

Nampo's key petroleum depot is located at 38.720407° 125.366678°. It is one of North Korea's most important petroleum storage facilities, and also receives shipments from vessels engaged in illegal transshipment operations. 

Currently it has fifteen storage tanks for different types of refined petroleum products. The depot has grown in recent years with two new tanks added since 2019, and there is prepared space for a further twelve tanks. Two additional facilities also lie within a few hundred meters from this site.

Taedong Storage Site 39.094303° 125.615255°

From the main receiving depots like Nampo, petroleum can be shipped by rail to intermediate storage facilities. This one is near the town of Taedong, west of Pyongyang.

The Taedong Petroleum Storage Facility.

At Taedong, four large storage tanks - each approx. 20 to 25 meters in diameter - are partially set underground and are covered with large mounds of dirt.

Oil is brought to them via a pipeline from a rail terminal 750 meters away. Once inside the complex, the main line splits into smaller feeder pipelines that can fill or drain each tank independently. Taedong is one of the largest of these internal facilities and is just 1.3 km away from five anti-aircraft artillery batteries, and it is covered by several surface-to-air missile sites as well owing to its proximity to Pyongyang. 

Within Pyongyang is a large, central storage facility at 39.082890° 125.707182°.

The complex covers 12.4 hectares and contains large storage tanks like at Nampo, and smaller tanks that can be seen in towns outside of the capital and even at gas stations.

From these larger storage facilities, the fuel is then distributed via tanker trucks to their destined town or village.

One such site is in Kuum-ni at 38.898954° 127.908719°.

In this 2004 image, the individual storage tanks are visible.

Kuum-ni lies on the rail line in between Changjon and Tongchon in Kangwon Province. Its storage site comprises fifteen tanks, each 10-11 meters long.

By 2013, the tanks have been covered up.

Over time, most of the open tank facilities like Kuum-ni have had their storage tanks placed in bunkers or covered over with soil. In this 2013 image, new vent pipes are visible as small white dots.

Civilian organizations (factories, farms, etc.) have their own on-site fuel storage, and can draw from these "community" facilities. Sometimes it's a considerable amount (thousands of liters) or just a few small storage barrels, depending on their individual needs. 

The military has its own fuel supply system, and their needs are prioritized over civilian organizations. 

This system, while theoretically efficient in a country lacking internal pipelines, is also prone to abuse as local party bosses have considerable influence over the local fuel supply. And, there many opportunities for fuel to be stolen or diverted elsewhere; from black market activity to diversion for personal use, and the occasional need to 'donate' fuel back to the government, an unknown but likely large percentage of the country's fuel supplies end up being taken out of normal availability.

Regardless of the inefficiencies in North Korea's supply structure and economic policies, the country has managed to continue to import far more fuel than UN limits allow, even through the border closures brought on by the pandemic. 

Given a lack of comprehensive data about North Korea's imports, monitoring other parts of the country's petroleum infrastructure, like the growth, renovation, or demolition of storage facilities, can provide additional insight into how much the country is capable of bringing in and storing long-term. 

Petroleum storage, while not always the most interesting subject, plays a role in North Korea's ability to withstand sanctions, border closures, and any future blockade during a war. Improving our understanding of this topic can also help us to gauge the strength of its economy and its ability to manufacture a range of goods. 


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

--Jacob Bogle, 1/21/2024