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.
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.
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.
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.
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°.
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.