Monday, September 16, 2019

The Great Songwon Mystery

I have a page of "mysteries" for the #AccessDPRK Mapping Project. They're sites that I either don't know what they are, can't firmly identify, or would like more specific information on (like different palaces). One of those sites is in North Pyongan Province and it has a tunnel, water running out of it, and an electrical substation. Obviously it's a hydroelectric plant, right?

The problem is that there isn't a dam or reservoir nearby, neither is there a gravity-pump setup. So where's the water coming from?

I sat with this little mystery for a few years because there was no obvious source of water. Could it be some secret underground facility and the "stream" coming out of it is just drainage? North Korea does have plenty of those, but then other aspects of the site didn't really make sense for it to be an underground military base or factory. So, as I said, I sat with the mystery.

I was recently researching some of the country's large dams and came to Songwon Dam in Chagang Province, about 42 km away from the first site. Every source that mentioned Songwon said that it was a hydroelectric dam. There's one problem with that. Songwon doesn't have a hydroelectric generator, not even one downriver like many other hydroelectric sites do. Now I'm sitting here with a hydroelectric dam with no generator in one province and an apparent generating site with no dam in another province.

The next step was finding out that the apparent mines in the area form a lovely 42km-long straight line from Songwon directly to the mystery site. In fact, they're not mines at all, but the excavated debris from one heck of a tunneling project - a tunnel that takes water from the Songwon reservoir and to the hydroelectric generating site. Thus, Songwon is a hydroelectric dam. It just makes its electricity in the neighboring province. Songwon was completed in 1987 and Landsat/Copernicus satellite imagery also shows construction work happening at the "mystery site" in 1987, too, further verifying their connection. A happy little mystery is now solved.

It seems like North Korea isn't done creating these huge tunnel systems. There's the newly finished Wonsan People's-Army Power Station in Kangwon Province. It, too, has a tunnel taking water from the reservoir to a generating station that, in this case, is 28 km away.

Having the generating site farther away from the dam means that you can get a greater change in elevation which will increase the water's speed as it moves downhill. The faster water moves the more momentum it has, and that means it can turn turbines faster, generating more electricity. If a dam is 200 feet above sea level, you'll get a lot more electricity generated if you have the generating station at 30 feet above sea level vs. at 150 feet by making that water drop 170 feet instead of just 50.

The Wonsan dam is at 1,800 feet and the first generating station (there's two) is at about 680 feet, a massive drop. However, they could have achieved the same amount of elevation drop using a tunnel 10 km shorter if they went toward a different direction. The same is true of Songwon. From the intake site to the generating station there's a ~560 foot drop...spread out over 42 km! In the case of Songwon, that elevation drop could have been accomplished by placing the generating station 25 km downriver.
However, the tunnel would not have been able to be in a straight line, making construction more difficult. It appears that the Wonsan tunnel could have been in a straight line to reach the shorter distance, so I don't know why they opted for the longer journey instead.

The next image is a picture of an intake tower with a similar layout as the one at Songwon. The "window" on the tower is to let air in to prevent a vacuum from forming and damaging the system.

Water intake tower at the old Desna Dam, Czechia. Source: Wikimedia.

The last thing I'll say about Songwon is that even though the reservoir is massive (it covers 18.3 square km and has a capacity of 3.2 billion cubic feet of water according to the FAO), the amount of water coming out of the generating station is very small. The size of the electrical substation is also rather tiny compared to the ones at other large dams. This is because the water intake point is actually at the surface level of the reservoir. If the reservoir is even slightly low, water wont flow into the tunnel to turn the generator. This means that despite the enormous effort North Korea put into constructing everything, it doesn't seem to be generating much electricity in return. Of course, North Korea isn't exactly known for their efficiencies - be it efficiencies in design, labor, or cost, the regime really seems to like expending huge effort for little gain.

I want to give a quick shout out to my Patreon supporters: Kbechs87, GreatPoppo, and Planefag.

--Jacob Bogle 9/15/2019

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Punggye-ri Nuclear Facilities Still Stand

North Korea tested their most powerful nuclear device on Sept. 3, 2017. The bomb was estimated to have had a yield of between 100 kt and 250 kt, which is the upper reach of the test mountain's ability to contain the explosion. In other words, a larger bomb could have destroyed the mountain (Mt. Mantap).

After the test, the world seemed to be bracing for a war between the United States and North Korea. What happened next made history. In November North Korea stopped every kind of test related to their WMD programs: ballistic missiles, nuclear, everything. The North also took the unprecedented step of blowing up the tunnels (also called portals) used to test their nuclear devices at Punggye-ri in May 2018.

While many hailed this decision, others pointed out that the much promoted "destruction" only destroyed the portal entrances. There's no evidence the vast tunnel system beneath Mt. Mantap was destroyed. This left open the opportunity for the site to be reclaimed once the small amount of debris was cleared out. According to a statement from the Institute for Science and International Security by David Albright:

"North Korea’s action is better than a freeze and represents a disabling of the test site. However, like many disabling steps, North Korea could likely resume testing at the site after some weeks or months of work. Although the main mountain is unlikely to be usable, other nearby mountains could be used. And two of the portals (numbers 3 and 4, using North Korean nomenclature) were apparently intact and usable for further nuclear explosions prior to the dismantling steps conducted."

Despite that warning, relations continued to thaw. And then on June 12, 2018, a sitting American president and a leader of North Korea met in person for the very first time. The Singapore Summit was short on details and formal disarmament agreements, but North Korea maintained its own nuclear and missile testing moratorium for a year. However, since Nov. 2018 (a year after tests stopped in 2017), the country has tested over a dozen short-range missiles during seven different launching events.
Additionally, after dismantling a test stand at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in June 2018, the test stand was reconstructed in 2019. Oh, and let's not forget the continued production of uranium at the Pyongsan uranium milling plant.

So what do the resumption of missile testing and the reconstruction of weapon sites have to do with Punggye-ri?

This image shows the north portal as it was in 2015. All of the various buildings are standing and the site is operational.

The below image is after the May 2018 demolition. You can see that the portal area has been disturbed by the explosions and the support buildings are gone.

Free open-source satellite imagery from Google Earth shows that while some of the tunnel entrances were indeed destroyed, the entire rest of the nuclear complex is still standing. This strongly suggests that North Korea was never serious about engaging in any activities that would substantially or permanently disable their ability to develop and test nuclear weapons or long-range missiles. It also backs up what David Albright (and others) have said, North Korea could rather easily resume testing if they desired.

Punggye-ri is located in North Hamgyong Province and lies adjacent to the Hwasong concentration camp. (I raised concerns about prisoners being used for slave labor at the site back in 2017.)
Starting at the small village of Punggye-ri, the testing complex runs over 17 km north along a river valley that eventually leads to the base of Mt. Mantap, where the tunnels are and the testing occurs.

This series of images will take you from the tunnels (portals) and down along the valley until reaching the train station. They will show, without doubt, that other than the initial demolition of select facilities near the portals, the entire complex still stands.

As of March 2019, all of the sites within the northern administration area are still standing, including the checkpoint.

About 700 meters to the south of the northern administration area is a set of barracks. There hasn't been any change to them since the May 2018 "shutdown".

Further south is the second security gate. Maintaining these internal security points (which are north of the main entrance location) would not be necessary if the facility was permanently decommissioned.

Still moving south, 5.8 km away from the second gate, is another set of barracks and support buildings.

This southern area has barracks and a set of agricultural buildings. Portions of the valley are used to grow the crops eaten by the personnel stationed at Punggye-ri. Lush fields of various crops can be seen on an image dated October 11, 2018. Five months later and the fields are resting for winter and the buildings still stand as seen in the above image.

The southernmost part of the testing complex is the central administration area. It deals with logistics, supporting overall operations, and manages personnel housing. It, too, is fully intact.

Finally, there's the train station and main gate.

If the site had been permanently closed, it makes sense that the gate would remain to prevent people from walking into a dangerous area, however, when its existence is combined with the rest of Punggye-ri, it leaves little doubt as to its continued survival as a future nuclear testing site. Additionally, the train station hasn't been altered in any way. The civilian village of Punggye-ri only has a few hundred residents, the train station would only need to keep one of its two platforms to maintain domestic rail service.

The unchanged status of Punggye-ri has been further verified with newer imagery from DigitalGlobe as recently as July 2019 by 38 North. Two years on from their last test, the site's continued existence calls into question the wisdom of increasing funding by over 10% of the Inter-Korean Cooperation Fund, to hit a total budget of $1.18 billion. The fund's purpose is to help establish peace and grow economic ties between the two countries. However, North Korea has a history going back decades of defaulting on loans, stealing equipment, demanding even greater payments, and commandeering joint projects (like the industrial site at Kaesong.) They do this while surreptitiously continuing their weapons program and engaging in countless illicit acts to bypass sanctions and earn even more foreign currency.

Punggye-ri's ability to be quickly restored, the reconstruction of the Sohae missile launch site, the repeated missile tests resuming in 2018, and Pyongyang's massive infusion of cash into their conventional forces are all none-to-subtle hints that they will not stop being a threat, no matter how earnest the Moon and Trump administrations would like to make friends.

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

--Jacob Bogle, 9/3/2019

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Work at the Hagap Underground Facility Continues

Hagap is a large underground facility that lies right across the provincial border in Chagang Province, near the International Friendship Exhibition (in North Pyongan Province).

Landsat/Copernicus satellite imagery shows that Hagap was constructed in 1991 (although it seems the US intelligence community didn't learn about it until 1996). By 1998, within the public sphere, Hagap was suspected of being one of North Korea's centrifuge facilities and was often mentioned in the same breath as the site at Kumchang-ni. At the time, the Defense Intelligence Agency said, "There is one site, of an unconfirmed function, that possibly could be a nuclear-weapons-related facility by 2003...The function of this site has not been determined, but it could be intended as a nuclear production and/or storage site."

Changes at the Hagap site are visible between the 1990 and 1991 images.

Hagap, as with Kumchang-ni, seems to never have been completed and certainly never became a functioning nuclear site. But questions started being raised about Hagap, specifically, despite the initial insistence by the Pentagon that it was a nuclear site. These questions were made more relevant by the fact that, after being inspected by an international team, Hagap didn't appear large enough or well suited to house a nuclear reactor or serve other related purposes.

As mentioned earlier, Hapag is near the International Friendship Exhibition, a mere 5 km away. This and other reasons (some I mentioned above) has led to some analysts calling into question its nuclear purpose. The other idea is that it's actually being turned into a massive records storage complex; Pyongyang's answer to Iron Mountain.

In 2017 I first reported on new work being conducted at both Hagap and at the IFE. The construction at both sites seems to have begun in 2016 and continues to this day. Before I get into the alternative purpose for Hagap, I want to go over these ongoing changes.

The above image shows the site as it appeared in October 2013 and after work had resumed in October 2016, after many years of apparent inactivity. The main difference is a large pile of excavated debris.

Aside from the pile of excavated material, additional areas of activity could also be seen around the site.

By 2019 what the "other activity" was turning into became clear.

The large pile of rock was in fact debris from tunneling operations to create a new entrance to the site that would allow vehicles inside. The other activity was the construction of a road that led into the facility.

The new entrance site is very clear on this April 10, 2019 image.

Access to Hagap is a small access road that comes off the Pyongyang-Huichon Highway. There is no obvious security gate or fence system that surrounds the complex. This leads me to suspect that it isn't an important nuclear-related facility. While there are coincidences in timing between construction periods at Hagap and construction periods at known nuclear sites, that's about the only similarity.

And even as a weapon's storage site, Hagap seems to be ill fitted. For one, having a central storage site for your most important weapons isn't a good idea. A major strike could wipe them all out. Secondly, Hagap is at least 50 km away from the nearest suspected ballistic missile base. Moving weapons to there from Hagap, up and down winding, unpaved roads, would leave them vulnerable to observation and attack for extended periods of time.

The other two suspected nuclear sites, Kumchang-ni (in North Pyongan Province) and Yeongjeo-ri (in Ryanggang Province) are both positioned far into a closed valley and cover large areas. They have support buildings spread throughout and have perimeter security. The same can be said for nearly all of North Korea's ballistic missile sites. And while Yongbyon isn't hidden, it is surrounded by air defense and has multiple security fences and checkpoints. Hagap doesn't have any of these things, and though it is tucked away in a valley, it only takes up a relatively small footprint, plus it's just a mile off the main highway and doesn't appear to have any military units on-site to provide protection.

Hagap does have housing but they're not typical "harmonica houses" or in barrack form (both styles dominate military housing). They're small apartment blocks next to what may be administrative buildings. And finally, work has been taken to "beautify" the area with tree-lined roads, ponds, and a lovely central building at the main entrance. On the other hand, Yongbyon looks like any factory town and the uranium plants at Pakchon and Pyongsan are plain industrial sites. Only the Kim's are worthy of a forested campus.

Whether Hagap was envisioned to be a nuclear or research facility that was later re-purposed into an archival facility or whether it was always supposed to be an Iron Mountain we may never know, but the site's rural location and it being underground mean that anything inside would be likely to survive even the most catastrophic of wars or rebellion. And with all of the "gifts" being transported to the IFE, Hagap is nearby to receive more serious cargo. After three generations, Kim Jong Un is having to save the country his grandfather created. He must also ensure that the history of the country (both official and real histories) is saved. Hagap looks to be the perfect place for that.

I'd like to thank my supporters on Patreon: Kbechs87, GreatPoppo, and Planefag.

--Jacob Bogle 9/1/2019

Saturday, August 24, 2019

A Pyongsan Addendum

On August 8, 2019 I wrote a post about highly visible leaks at the Pyongsan Uranium Mine and Milling Factory. In the post are satellite images that clearly show waste leaking going back to at least 2003.

Despite the other things that I have been able to show through the #AccessDPRK project, this particular one caught the attention of the international media. Before long I was being contacted by Radio Free Asia and then UPI picked it up, followed by Chosun Ilbo, UK tabloids, and even state sponsored sites like Sputnik News. Some contacted me directly while others brought in their own experts to do the analysis. Almost all of these additional experts agreed that pollution of any kind from the plant would be cause for concern.

However, all of this attention also meant that people started asking other questions and needing clarification. Some, it seems, have even tried to deliberately distort what it is I actually said to fit their own narrative. I want to take this time to clear a few things up and to offer additional support for what I have said.

First, my original post is titled "Radioactive River" because it is about a uranium facility polluting a river. In that post I only talked about pollution in general terms saying, "the pipe taking waste materials to the open reservoir has leaks and has been spilling toxic water into the Ryesong's tributary". I said that the Ryesong is the main water source for 200,000. (However, if you widen the area to include a few extra miles on either side of the river, that figure doubles to 400,000.)

The first interview I had was with Radio Free Asia. The three minute phone call consisted of very few questions. One of the questions asked was if the waste material could be radioactive. I said yes, that some of the material could be. That one answer seems to be what most people are concerned about and confused over.

North Korea uses low-grade coal as the uranium source. Pyongsan's coal has 0.26% uranium concentration. Apart from that, lower grade coal also contains lead, arsenic, vanadium, cobalt, and other heavy metals as well as small amounts of additional radioactive material. Processing and burning coal leaves behind radioactive waste. A 2007 Scientific American article put it succinctly, "coal ash is more radioactive than nuclear waste". This is because burning it concentrates the impurities already existing within the coal. But the coal always had those materials inside of it, regardless of burning. The coal is still not pure. Whether it is burnt, crushed, or just dumped into a river, it is not a safe material to be placing into a water supply

The black sludge seen at the Pyongsan reservoir is the leftover coal from the plant along with residual acids and other industrial products. It is moved from the plant in slurry form and emptied into the reservoir. During that movement, some leaks out of cracks in the pipe and ends up contaminating the Ryesong River which then eventually flows into the Han River estuary.

Regardless of the inherent dangers of leaking coal slurry, uranium mining and milling (the process of turning uranium ore into yellowcake) creates its own radioactive waste.

According to the EPA, "regardless of how uranium is extracted from rock, the processes leave behind radioactive waste....The tailings remain radioactive and contain hazardous chemicals from the recovery process."

The key to making the process safe is proper handling and storage of the waste products. North Korea is not a member of the International Labour Organization which plays a major role creating safety rules for those that work around radioactive materials. Additionally, there is no evidence that the reservoir is lined. Lining the reservoir is an extremely important part of ensuring that the toxic water doesn't leak into rivers and groundwater. The fact it is unlined was mentioned by Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Dr. Lewis stressed on his website the negative health concerns associated with dumping the material into an unlined pond saying, "What is definitely happening, though, is that North Korea is dumping the tailings from the plant into an unlined pond, one surrounded by farms. That’s not a hypothetical harm.  That’s actual pollution that is harming the health and well being of the local community."

The facts are beyond dispute, and regardless of the exact amount of radioactive material being spilled into the river, there are also large amounts of other dangerous chemicals that are leaking out: the aforementioned lead, arsenic, vanadium, mercury, and others. All of those things cause health problems and there is no "safe limit" to lead and arsenic ingestion.

Aside from the leaking material, even the waste within the reservoir poses a risk. During periods of dry weather, the surface of the sludge pile can dry out. Wind can pick up those small particles and carry them for miles, depositing them on land, homes, and within the lungs of anyone breathing it.

Pyongsan doesn't exist in a vacuum, either. Defector testimony from those who have worked in North Korea's nuclear program (either as miners, technicians, scientists, etc.) or simply lived in areas around nuclear sites have pointed to ongoing heath problems and birth defects. Recent defectors have even shown evidence of radiation exposure because they lived downwind of North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear test site. The people downriver of Pyongsan aren't immune to pollution.
I am not trying to be alarmist. This is not Chernobyl or Fukushima, but all of this provides strong evidence that there is an ongoing health crisis in this part of North Korea and that some of the toxic materials being dumped into the Ryesong will inevitably reach the Han River.

I am not a nuclear weapons expert. I have never claimed to be. I am a concerned individual who has spent the last seven years of his life studying North Korea and bringing attention to important issues. I am not getting paid by any government or partisan organization. And while I don't know what constitutes being an "expert" to some, my years of work speaks for itself. I created a map with 53,000 locations, I was the first to report on a new test site at the Tonghae Satellite Launch Station, I have multiple reports on the growth of North Korea's military, I created a survey of the country's archaeological sites using open-source satellite imagery, and I was the first to report on the replica of Panmunjom. I think that qualifies me to say that black industrial waste flowing into a river is a bad thing.

Evidence of widespread contamination from various nuclear-related facilities exist around the world. And continuing fears over Fukushima and the recent accidents in Russia mean that we must all be vigilant. For my part, I will continue to observe every square mile of North Korea and to report on the things I find.

--Jacob Bogle, 8/24/2019

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Slowdown at the Pakchon Uranium Plant?

In the course of researching my article on the toxic leaks at the Pyongsan uranium mine and milling plant, I started observing North Korea's second such facility at Pakchon, North Pyongyan.

Reviewing historical satellite imagery for Pyongsan shows an ever-growing pile of tailings (waste material) and sludge from the mine and factory at its waste reservoir, indicating continual operations. The same cannot be said upon review of the reservoir at Pakchon. A lack of obvious changes to the reservoir recently could mean a few things, which I'll discuss later.

Like Pyongsan, Pakchon was constructed in the 1980s under the leadership of Kim Il Sung (with various degrees of Soviet assistance), and is the second of North Korea's two declared uranium milling plants (where uranium ore is processed into yellowcake). The other plant being Pyongsan, as mentioned earlier. A review of satellite imagery shows the evolution of the Pakchon facility's operations.

Google Earth imagery from 2005 shows that the original tailings dam had been closed and turned into farmland, while a second tailings dam had been established during the intervening years.

By 2014, activity at the dam can still be seen, as new materials are dumped into it via truck (unlike the reservoir at Pyongsan, which has waste material moved via pipe).

The addition of new waste to the dam appears to have slowed down by 2016.

The small sections of the reservoir that were active in 2014 no longer seem to be undergoing change, and there isn't much (if any) additional activity as evidenced by the lack of surface disturbances.

The general lack of new waste deposits has continued into 2019. Any changes to the reservoir from 2016 and 2019 are very minimal, indicating a lack of production. By comparison, the growth of the "sludge pile" within the Pyongsan tailings reservoir grew substantially.

The Pyongsan plant is much larger than Pakchon and processes coal with a uranium concentration of 0.26%, compared to Pakchon's 0.086%. Both are considerably low-quality concentrations by most definitions but seem to be among the best ore the country has domestic access to.

The sludge pile within the Pyongsan reservoir occupied some 69,000 square meters of space by May 2017.

The pile had grown to approximately 87,000 square meters by March 2019, an apparent increase of 26%. An exact figure can be difficult to ascertain because water levels may have changed slightly over time.

The only area of Pakchon that seems to have maintained activity is the associated mine, 1.3 km south of the main factory building.

Aside from monitoring tailings, the physical state of the factory complex gives us more information.

The main building is roughly 120x100 meters, but there are several other buildings involved in the process of concentrating and milling the uranium. The administration section of the complex seems perfectly fine, but two industrial buildings are falling apart, and one of those is in the process of being demolished.

Google Earth imagery from March 19, 2012 gives a clear view of the two buildings of interest. They are in good order and appear functional.

By March 2019, the roof of building #1 has several holes in it and building #2 has been torn down.

What does all of this mean?

It would make sense that Pyongsan would be the country's primary facility, as the ore used is of much greater quality than the ore at Pakchon. Indeed, Pyongsan underwent a refurbishment in 2014-2015, with additional improvements being seen even more recently. But is Pakchon slowing down?

A lack of obvious waste deposits and the fact that some of the buildings have been neglected or demolished points to problems. Mining operations have continued, but there doesn't seem to be a new tailings dam that would explain the lack of activity at the current one. The mine has settling/separation ponds but doesn't appear to have a dedicated spot to hold waste from the processed material. This could indicate that the country is stockpiling material for processing but has cut back on the overall amount of milled uranium it can produce at Pakchon. This may be backed up by the fact that, at least for 2019, even work conducted at Yongbyon has been scaled back.

Another possibility is that there are problems with the factory itself. North Korea's industrial sector has long been crippled for its lack of spare parts and its general inability to repair and replace complex equipment in a timely fashion. Additionally, uranium processing is expensive and energy intensive. During the early days of North Korea's nuclear program, the Soviet Union told them that it wasn't economically feasible to extract the low-quality uranium sources within the country. Nonetheless, Kim Il Sung persisted. The energy intensive and expensive nature of the process may have finally caught up with them, leading to scaling back Pakchon.

Pakchon has never operated every single day, but this prolonged period with little to no activity is a change from the time under Kim Jong Il. It will take more observations to know exactly what is happening, but for now, Pakchon certainly doesn't seem to be operating at its full capacity.

--Jacob Bogle, 8/21/2019

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Support AccessDPRK Using Patreon

I began mapping North Korea in 2012 as a hobby. Since then, it has turned into an enormous project that has resulted in several important outcomes. Phase II of the national map became the most comprehensive map of North Korea freely available to the public. I was the first to report on a new missile test site at Tonghae, showed that the country has multiple stealth ships, released a data set of over 300 ancient sites in the country, and information from the project has been used to support RAND Corp. reports and others. And most recently, my post showing leaks of polluted material into the Ryesong river from the Pyongsan uranium plant is being discussed by Radio Free Asia, UPI, and others.

Unlike the bulk of North Korea analysts, I'm not part of a think tank with million-dollar grants or part of major news organizations. Everything I produce was created by my own efforts, drawing on years of experience and my library of over 21,000 pages worth of material. However, it does take a lot of time and energy. Getting new research material, accessing subscription-based sources, needing the occasional updated satellite image from companies like Planet all takes money.

If you appreciate the work I do and would like to help support me in this endeavor, I'd like to ask for your patronage via Patreon.

Currently there are three levels of support, $3, $5, and $15. Each level comes with additional benefits, like receiving copies of articles 24 hours before the general public and being listed as a supporter on those articles (as well as "thank you" tweets).
I am also working on additional tiers ($20+) and rewards, such as granting access to exclusive data sets, which will be made available in the future.

Please consider helping AccessDPRK keep producing unique and relevant content that opens up the Hermit Kingdom to the world. I will greatly appreciate every drop of support.

The direct link is

--Jacob Bogle, 8/17/2019

Sunday, August 11, 2019

In Defense of North Korea Travel

In September 2017, the US prohibited American citizens from traveling to North Korea (except under special circumstances). This move was ostensibly in retaliation for the horrific and mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Otto Warmbier. Then in August 2019, the US State Department announced that foreigners who visited North Korea at any time since March 1, 2011 would no longer be able to qualify for visa-free travel to the United States. This newest restriction applies to several other countries as well, but it will make visiting North Korea an even more difficult decision for foreigners who also have family or business in the US.

The argument against visiting North Korea (or any dictatorial country like, Cuba, China, Russia during the days of the USSR, etc.) is that a person is giving money to these repressive regimes and that travel may even be a tacit sign of support. That the money raised by tourism isn't used to bolster their economies or help employees, but goes towards things like weapons programs. The other argument is that it's just too dangerous, especially for Americans.

If you couldn't tell from the title, I reject the idea that the risks of tourism outweigh the benefits. For one, on a purely philosophical level, I believe that every human being has an inherent right to travel anywhere they want to. (Even if the target country doesn't care about human rights.)
As far as safety risks, anyone visiting any country has to be aware of local laws, especially if they have laws surrounding culture, religion, or the leadership. Plenty of other countries have laws that would seem completely insane through the eyes of an American (like going to prison for insulting a king or dancing with a woman you're not married to), so North Korea isn't unique in having absurd laws. What's unique about North Korea is the extreme and severe consequences of breaking those laws. But in terms of the actual risk level, there have only been 16 Americans arrested in North Korea since 1999. I doubt the same could be said of any nationality visiting the United States.

Tour groups often give lengthy warnings about what not to do, and it should be common sense by now to avoid political and religious discussions, to listen to your minders, and to be as respectful as possible. North Korea is a serious place with serious consequences if you screw up, but statistically, an average tourist doesn't seem to be at much greater risk of being arrested than any other average tourist visiting a place like Saudi Arabia, Thailand, or Iran. In fact, the only group at a higher-than-average risk is ethnic Korean-Americans, particularly those who are Christian.

Getting to terms of economics, only a few hundred Americans visited North Korea each year prior to the ban. The total economic impact on the country from American tourists was likely less than $5 million a year.
If Kim Jong Un is anything like his father in his love for alcohol and parties, that money wouldn't even pay his annual bar tab, let alone be directly responsible for propping up a billion-dollar weapons program nor would it significantly boost spending on luxury items like cars and yachts. Indeed, under Kim Jong Il, the regime spent over $600 million a year just on luxury goods.
North Korea's sources of outside income is vast and includes countless illicit programs. Their cyber theft activity is estimated to have brought in some $2 billion over the years. So I don't buy the argument that the extremely limited American tourism industry to the country was having any significant impact on allowing the country to continue doing what it does.

On the other hand, tourism to the country offers many opportunities that further the goals of democracy and benefits the work of North Korea analysts.

The impacts of cross-cultural engagement can't be underestimated. A couple years ago I had the opportunity to travel to Cuba during the brief window created under the Obama administration (which has since been cut off under the current administration). It was a government approved tour to be sure, but I also got to see a decent amount of reality - not just propaganda. I saw trash in the streets, houses without electricity, and suburban neighborhoods in bad need of repair. I also saw a more managed Cuba with an immaculate downtown, loyal soldiers of the Revolution marching around, and people just trying to live their lives. What I didn't see was goosestepping civilians calling for the death of all Americans. In fact, after everyone got comfortable with each other, the message was pretty clear. Cubans recognize that problems exist and they don't necessarily mind overlooking complicated historical matters if it means having a less antagonistic relationship with the US, so long as both sides can open up and allow the Cubans to finally start moving out of the 1960s thanks to tourism and trade.

Actually getting a change to see the "evil" communist Cubans, Soviets, and North Koreans reveals that they are actually people, just like everyone else. They have their own individual desires no matter how hard the regime tries to subdue them and enforce the "collective-first" ideology. That individuality and their realization that North Korea isn't a paradise on earth, is part of a long and inexorable process that will result in the collapse of the Kim family. It is something that was only made possible by North Koreans seeing other parts of the world like, China and Russia, and from outsiders coming in with their fat bellies, modern fashion, and new technology. Being envious of Levi jeans helped fuel discontent among the Soviet youth and the same thing has been happening in North Korea.

The results of trading, especially with China, has been a flood of outside information flowing into the country. This information (largely in the form of foreign movies and TV shows) is seen as a major threat to the regime. It has broken the spell of the "socialist paradise" while also raising the expectations and dreams of the people. And each time the government fails at meeting those expectations and addressing the people's concerns, even more cracks form between government and citizen. And tourism allows each side to realize that the other is human, too. That Westerners aren't bloodthirsty devils and North Koreans aren't as brainwashed as mass media may lead us to believe.

While I have never been to North Korea, I have read countless accounts, watched a ton of video, and looked at loads of pictures of tourists from multiple countries and during different periods of time. No matter how tightly controlled the visit is, human behavior is universal. Once a level of comfort sets in, people start talking. Sometimes it's just a small amount chatting, but others results in a relative flood of information being quietly exchanged between people. This adds even more fuel to the fire that has severely damaged Pyongyang's ability to blackout information and to squash growing aspirations.

And all of those stories, pictures, and videos help shed light on scores of interesting areas, often inadvertently. They can show new buildings, verify the location of a factory or other place of interest, they show propaganda posters, which allows analysts to get a better grasp of what the government is telling their people (verses what they're telling the world) and where their current interests lie. They can also give us a close look at infrastructure, car and cell phone use, and even more mundane things like current fashions. All of this augments and helps verify what we can learn from defectors and satellite imagery - both of which come with their own problems. If you take away tourism, you take away thousands of new pictures and thousands of hours of video each year. To me, that seems to be the exact opposite of what the West has been trying to do: reveal as much as possible about a country run by dangerous people with nuclear weapons.

--Jacob Bogle, 8/11/2019