Friday, December 18, 2020

The Ever-Changing DMZ

The Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas is a bit of a misnomer. The super thin strip of land 4 km wide was created as part of the 1953 Armistice and aimed to keep both militaries apart and to create a safe, clear buffer zone. However, immediately on either side of the DMZ lies the bulk of both nations' armies.

"The Frontline". Image taken in 2012 by the Republic of Korea Armed Forces. Image source: Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0). 

And while the United Nations' stipulated boundary (on paper) hasn't really changed over the years, the physical boundary itself has (as defined as the fences both sides use). Indeed, the path of the electric fence that runs for 250 km across the peninsula has changed more than once, and the small guard huts are constantly being built, torn down, relocated, and then moved again. 

The effective border between the two countries is a line drawn in the center of the DMZ called the Military Demarcation Line. On each side of that is a narrow "no-man's land", penned in by the inner row of fences, and then a second line of fencing about half a kilometer from the first. This is supposed to create the 4 km-wide demilitarized zone, roughly 2 km on the north side of the MDL and 2 km on the southern side. However, the actual real-world width can vary considerably as both sides have tried to take advantage of the hilly terrain. In some places from the second line fence in North Korea to the second line fence in South Korea, the distance is 3.5 km, while in other spots it's nearly 6 km. 

Fences of the DMZ. The central yellow line is the Military Demarcation Line. The "practical" DMZ is bounded by the northernmost and southernmost fences. (South Korean fence paths, in pink, kindly provided by Javier Rives.)

This variation in the "practical" DMZ has led me to use a line that's roughly 4 km from the MDL to serve as the DMZ zone of immediacy. This isn't the 4 km of official DMZ width, but 4 km starting at the MDL and moving north into North Korea. 

The zone of immediacy not only includes the truly demilitarized no-man's land, but also the rows of guard towers (which are manned by soldiers), and numerous artillery and other military positions that form the country's first line of defense as a clearly connected set of military sites that stand apart from other defensive lines farther inland. It is within the DMZ-proper and the zone of immediacy that this article covers.


While the demarcation line doesn't change and the official layout of the DMZ doesn't either, the practical boundaries are created by two rows of electrified fences. The fences are guarded by hundreds of observation posts and even have machine gun nests constructed along the entire length of the DMZ; roughly one every 60-100 meters. Of course, those positions aren't manned and would only be used during a conflict.

Over the decades, the fence positions have been modified to take better advantage of the terrain and to allow for the best defensive posture while needing the fewest resources. One of the most recent examples of this is a 660-meter stretch at 38.065069° 126.847214°. It was built in late 2018-early 2019 and adjusts the fence's path slightly to the north. The original anti-tank ditch still exists but the old fence has been removed.

An example of a planned change that was never carried out can be found at 38.355133° 127.592494°. Sometime prior to 2007, the regime cleared a path 1.3 km long and ~12 meters wide along a hillside. They also dug machine gun emplacements. However, they never completed the new fence, and today the original fence remains while the 2007 path and emplacements sit largely unused; although, it does appear to have been kept clear of new brush growth.

One of the largest changes in recent years actually lies at the end of the official DMZ and at the beginning of the Northern Limit Line, the maritime boundary between the two countries. The DMZ itself ends south of Kaesong, as the Han River and its estuary form a natural boundary. But both sides have those coastlines heavily fortified as well, and the double line fencing system carries on for another 53 km, until it reaches the Ryesong River. 

That fencing originally ended at a pier on the river at 37.925110° 126.393169°. Around 2013, however, the regime extended one line of fencing up the river for a further 3.4 km. It now ends at a small mining village located at 37.952588° 126.392990°. The rest of the country's coast is fenced off as part of an anti-migration barrier.


Cropped photo of North Korean DMZ guard post as seen from a South Korean post. Image: AP/Ahn Young-joon.

In 2018, North and South Korea demolished ten guard posts each on their respective sides of the DMZ as a show of good faith during a period of diplomacy. This was the first time such an action had been taken and it was met with widespread international praise. 

Unfortunately, as has happened for decades, each time the two sides try to work together, the diplomatic efforts quickly wane and grand schemes for cooperation and peace fade as new cycles of provocation begins again. 

While the destruction of the posts may have been the most public demonstration of guard posts changing (either being removed or built), it happens fairly regularly as part of routine DMZ "maintenance," as each side finds better spots to place new posts, removes redundant ones, etc.

In the 2021 version of the AccessDPRK map, I was able to locate 544 stand-alone observation posts along the DPRK side of the DMZ. These small positions are usually manned by 2-3 soldiers, keeping an eye out for any unusual activity coming from the other side and to stay alert for any North Korean soldiers attempting to cross and defect. At least 18 new posts have been constructed since 2015, including at least four that were constructed during or after the joint demolition of guard posts in 2018.

Examples of this newer construction is a guard post that was built in 2018 at 38.344391° 127.593518° and one that was built in 2019 at 38.323211° 127.461832° (pictured below).


By some estimates, North Korea keeps 60% of its artillery deployed within 100 km of the DMZ. But over the years, the disposition of that artillery has changed. Their deployments, types, and numbers have all varied over time. Of particular concern is their hardened artillery sites (HARTS). 

These medium and long-range artillery positions are very often hidden behind hills or are otherwise obscured from direct line-of-sight (known as defilade) and can hold some of North Korea's largest artillery systems, including self-propelled guns and multiple rocket launchers (MLRs). 

Within 100 km of the DMZ are at least 608 identified HARTS locations, each with multiple artillery pieces. (This figure agrees with the higher-end estimates noted in public sources). Between 2009 and 2017, 126 new locations were constructed, representing 20.7% of all HARTS in the region. 

Almost all of these new sites are within 10 km of the Military Demarcation Line and several are within the zone of immediacy. 

Map of new HARTS positions (2009-2017).

Roughly constructed in 9-10 groups, these HARTS were built to hold self-propelled artillery like the Koksan and 122 mm, 130 mm, and 152 mm systems. One of the most talked about weapons is the Koksan (M-1978) 170mm self-propelled gun. These have a maximum firing range of 60 km. 

The group of positions to the far west of the image is predominately MLRs constructed after the 2010 bombardment of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. They are large enough to accommodate the North Korean variant of the Soviet 122 mm BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launcher, which was suspected to have been used during the bombardment.

The rest of the new HARTS sites appear to be for other towed and self-propelled artillery systems.

The above image shows five individual gun emplacements constructed together as part of a single battery. There are a total of three batteries in the immediate area. These three batteries hold 16 guns combined. Fired in a volley, they could launch as many as 560 rounds every five minutes.

You can also notice that they were built as close to the DMZ as feasible to maximize the amount of effective range within South Korean territory. Other HARTS have been constructed farther inland over the decades to serve as a second-line defense in the event of an invasion. These, however, are very much intended as offensive positions to threaten Seoul and ROK soldiers stationed along the DMZ.

According to RAND Corp., a single barrage along the entire length of the DMZ of all artillery pieces (not just the newest HARTS batteries) could fire as many as 385,000 rounds in an hour and kill over 205,000 people.

Due to the overlapping nature of each artillery piece, the following map shows the areas held most at risk by the greatest number of new guns, with some areas being within range of over 30 distinct batteries (each with 4-6 individual artillery pieces).

This map shows the areas under threat from the highest number of new HARTS. The black wedge is also under great threat but lies at the far-end of the artillery's range, meaning fewer shells would likely reach the spot than those in yellow due to the high failure rate of North Korean artillery shells.

Downtown Seoul is in range of at least 30 new batteries but the area just to the north is within range of 47, which is why most of Seoul is not highlighted on the density map.


Other changes occur within and around the DMZ as well, though not necessarily as important as the ones described above. Many places within the DMZ (on both Northern and Southern sides) are routinely burnt to get rid of underbrush and create optimal observation conditions. What environmental impact this burning has on what has become an "accidental wildlife paradise", is little known. This also leads to increase erosion and will speed up the natural change in topography over time.

What began with the intention of being a temporary border has turned into a permanent feature of Korean division that has spanned three generations. The DMZ and the area around it have shaped the lives and destinies of millions and has become a sort of distant backdrop on which their lives play out, but it is certainly not a static feature. Lives are still lost and hopes are raised on this backdrop, but for as long as the peninsula is divided, it will stubbornly remain a symbol and a threat; one that can drastically change with the ebbs and flows of inter-Korean relations.

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Amanda O., Anders O., GreatPoppo, John Pike, Kbechs87, Planefag, and Russ Johnson.

--Jacob Bogle, 12/17/2020

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Tanchon Hydroelectric Project Update

The Tanchon Hydroelectric Project is the largest hydroelectric project in North Korean history in terms of its complexity. Using a system of tunnels running for 60 km, it takes water from the Hochon River in Ryanggang Province (drawing from the Samsu Reservoir) and redirects it to the Tanchon hydroelectric generating stations in the small village of Sinhung, S. Hamgyong Province. Once completed, it will be the fulfillment of nearly a century of planning. 

Construction of the enormous project began in 2017 and continued through 2018, but work began to slow down in 2019 and that has carried on this year, particularly at the generating stations, as this update reveals.  

Tunneling work, on the other hand, appears to have made substantial progress.

Near the end of 2018, you can clearly see one of the over sixty access points to the main water tunnel, where small sections of the tunnel are excavation.

Almost exactly two years later, that one pile has become two very large piles.

The two piles cover a total of over 6,400 sq. meters. While not every access point has piles as large, they have all grown substantially, giving evidence to the size of the main water tunnel. 

Part of the project is the Sinhung Dam, located less than 2 km from the generating site. 

By Sept. 2019, the dam had two levels constructed. By Oct. 2020, only one full new level (level 3) had been built. Parts of a fourth level, one section on each end of the dam, had also been built, but the dam is still not complete despite it being of relatively moderate size.

In June 2020, Pyongyang Times reported that construction of the two generating stations was being "pushed dramatically" and that key parts of the project were entering their "final stages".  However, the last mention of the project occurred in August and only mentioned that new housing units had been constructed - something that can be verified by satellite imagery.

Taking a look at Power Station No. 1, the largest of the two generating stations being built at this site, not only can one see very little new progress since 38 North's review, but there has actually been little progress since 2018.

In 2018, only 100 meters worth of stanchions had been built and the generating hall was incomplete. 

By Oct. 20, 2020 there hasn't been much new progress. The generating hall is still incomplete, although the roof of a small section has been added. Additionally, a retaining wall to the right of the generating hall was built. No new work on the stanchions can be seen.

Looking at Power Station No. 6, there has been a lot of progress since 2018 (when almost nothing existed), but little else new can be seen since Sept. 2019.

One of the most obvious changes is the addition of a roof over the generating hall. The outward appearance of Power Station No. 6 suggests that it is completed. However, it is unknown if the turbines and other equipment have been installed. Although, depending on their size, the turbines may indeed have been installed prior to the rood addition, and the power station could be ready to become operational.

Until Power Station No. 1 is completed, the Tanchon project won't be able to produce but a fraction of its planned capacity. The slight progress made in the last year could be due to several factors.

The year 2020 has been especially difficult for North Korea's economy, and they were forced to limit the number of projects of national importance from 15 down to just 5. The economic and trade effects of COVID-19 have become more pronounced, and it is likely that the virus has indeed entered the country. On top of that, three typhoons hit North Korea and caused severe flooding across the country, and exchange rates between the DPRK won and US dollar have fallen. 

It's possible that the project will receive some added assistance as part of the flood recovery efforts in the region, but it is just as likely that it won't be completed for another year as other major projects (the Pyongyang General Hospital and the Wonsan resort area) have also blown passed their planned completion deadlines and are still under construction.

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Amanda O., Anders O., GreatPoppo, John Pike, Kbechs87, Planefag, and Russ Johnson.

--Jacob Bogle, 11/21/2020

Thursday, October 15, 2020

North Korea's Airborne Training Sites

Similar to the parachute jump towers in North Korea, this image of one at Fort Benning, USA provides up-close detail. | Image: U.S. Army, 2013.

North Korea's air force is aging as is much of their military equipment. At the same time, North Korea has been making up for these deficiencies by increasing training and readiness, particularly for their special operations forces. According to US Army Operations Officer Samuel Allmond, "North Korean airborne [special operations forces] are elite, highly trained, highly skilled and highly adaptable light-infantry oriented forces," and are trained "for both medium altitude and low-altitude jumps behind enemy lines."

Parachutist training first began in North Korea in the early 1960s and by 1968 there were at least two known airborne units. From then until the death of Kim Jong Il, training centers had been established in Koksan, Pyongyang (Songsin District), Sangwon, Taetan, Taechon, and Unsan. 

Under Kim Jong Un, four new ones have been constructed and three of the older facilities have undergone new construction and other improvements. 

The new ones are located in Changdo (built in 2014), Pyongsan (built in 2015), Sonchon (built in 2014-2017), and Unsal (built in 2012-2014). The facility at Sonchon was only brought to the public eye in 2020 by Nathan J. Hunt. The previously existing sites that have been upgraded are at Taetan, Taechon, and Unsan.

Map of North Korea's parachutist training centers. | Image: Jacob Bogle

Today, these ten facilities aid in training the seven known paratrooper units in the country. Four units are part of the Korean People's Army and three brigades are under the KPA Air Force.

26th Air Landing Brigade
38th Air Landing Brigade
45th Air Landing Brigade
525th Special Operations Battalion

Air Force
11th Airborne Snipers Brigade
16th Airborne Snipers Brigade
21st Airborne Snipers Brigade

According to Joseph P. Bermudez' 2001 book Shield of the Great Leader: the armed forces of North Korea, within the various special forces units there are three airborne brigades, three air force sniper brigades, and five other sniper brigades that may or may not take part in parachute training. The six airborne and air force brigades he mentions total 21,000 personnel.  

Whether the addition of new training sites under Kim Jong Un reflects the creation of new military units, the transfer of personnel from non-airborne units to existing airborne units, to aid in training other related and auxiliary troops, or simply a desire to improve overall training capacity, I don't know.

What is clear, however, is that North Korea is placing a great deal of importance on both their special operations forces in general and specifically on airborne (be they special forces or not). 

Some of the training facilities are very near airbases while others are not. This could reflect which ones are attached to the KPA Air Force and which ones are Army. 

I also want to stress that airborne forces are only one prong of North Korea's elite and special forces. As well as being delivered by air, they can infiltrate South Korean targets by hovercraft, submarine, other landing craft, and even tunnels. 

Changdo (38.650° 127.745°)

Changdo is located in Kangwon Province, about 36 km from the DMZ. It is a large training base surrounded by mountains and has existed for decades. However, in 2014 a "jump tower" was added to go along with numerous firearms ranges. Additionally, from 2012 to 2019, twenty-two new barracks buildings were constructed, and other changes were made to the base as well.  

In keeping with the upgrades of North Korea's nuclear and conventional forces, an apparent urban warfare training site (or MOUT, military operations on urban terrain) was built in 2019 in the southeast of the base. Presently, the whole base covers over 5.6 sq. km.

Traditionally, these towers are between 11 and 61 meters in height. The smaller ones are basically used for someone to jump off of a raised structure while strapped to a harness to experience the sensation of a jump, while the taller ones are high enough for a parachute to expand and are used by troopers during the last portion of their training before jumping out of a real aircraft.

I haven't been able to positively identify any of the smallest towers or other structures like the lateral drift apparatus. I have come across a few examples that may be them, but I am not certain. As such, I will only be pointing out the larger towers.

Koksan (38.658° 126.666°)

The Koksan training base is located in an area with multiple runways of varying types. The most important is Koksan Airbase 6 km to the west of the training base. There is also the Chik-tong Airfield, an auxiliary runway adjacent to Koksan AB, two additional airfields, and two emergency highway strips

Only the Koksan AB has a paved runway, the rest are simply grass fields or compacted dirt (such as the highway airstrips). While these other landing strips aren't meant for regular fighter jet use, they can all accommodate the country's large fleet of An-2 biplanes. These Soviet-built planes can fly low, have a small radar cross-section, and are a keystone for North Korea's special forces.

The idea behind having these antiquated planes is to allow reconnaissance and to infiltrate behind enemy lines during the opening stages of a new war. 

"During the dark of night, as part of the opening throws of a battle royale between South Korea, the U.S. and North Korea, hundreds of these old radial engine biplanes will fly low over the ground at slow speed, penetrating deep into South Korean airspace. For the vast majority of their crews it will be a one-way mission—to deliver Kim Jong Un's hardest shock troops deep behind enemy lines. This is done via low altitude air drop, as seen above, or by landing in short stretches of fields or roadways." -- Tyler Rogoway, The Drive

The Koksan training base's proximity to all of these runways makes a lot of sense regarding training parachutists to operate on a wide range of landing sites and terrains (as the area has low-lying mountains, open agricultural plains, and even small reservoirs that could assist in training for water landings).

A closeup of the jump tower. Its lattice structure can clearly be seen and the three arms from which recruits are dropped to the ground (landing zones) are also visible. 

In contrast to the concrete tower at Changdo, Koksan's tower is a steel lattice tower, like the one pictured at Fort Benning. Only one of the newly built towers is also a steel lattice. The rest are concrete. This reflects a trend to either build concrete towers or to modify the older steel towers (as was the case with Taetan and Unsan).

Pyongsan (38.400° 126.373°)

Similar to Changdo, the tower at Pyongsan lies within an older (and large) training facility. The concrete tower was constructed in 2015 and it is within a section of the base that includes water obstacles and an urban warfare training site (MOUT). 

The whole base occupies approximately 10.2 sq. km. and has a substantial administrative section, a driver training section, and apparent economic facilities (like farming and making agricultural products). 

The military is heavily involved in the country's economy and, in effect, creates its own parallel economy to the national one. So it is not unusual for large bases to be involved in either farming or manufacturing with intent to sell their products overseas to earn hard currency for the regime. And nearly every military site, large and small, has converted some of their land into farms to help feed the people stationed there.  

The nearest major airbase to Pyongsan is Nuchon-ni, some 29 km to the southwest. That, the fact that there is a MOUT facility within the base, and the driver training area all lead me to suspect that this is one of the Army's facilities and not the Air Force. If it is within the Army, it would be subordinate to KPA IV Corps which has responsibility for the western half of North Hwanghae Province and South Hwanghae Province.

Pyongyang-Songsin (39.001° 125.815°)

The site in Pyongyang is unique because it is located in an urban area. Two km away from the former Mirim Airfield and 6 km away from Kim Il Sung Square, the tower is located within a small training facility that occupies only 11.8 hectares. 

Unfortunately, I know very little about this base. Is it for training special forces? Is it part of the capital's defense corps? Perhaps it is used to train members of the Supreme Guard Command, the 200,000-man strong bodyguard force that protects the Kim family? I just don't know.

Very little has changed at the base since 2000 (the earliest available image on Google Earth) but it has been well maintained, suggesting that it has been in continual use. 

Sangwon (38.903° 125.967°)

Sangwon, in a small town within the larger Pyongyang region, is predominantly for jump training, although there are some smaller components to the base. Being within Pyongyang, it is surrounded by numerous other military bases including three other training facilities within 2.5 km of the airborne facility.

It is likely that Sangwon falls under the Army, and potentially the 38th Air Landing Brigade which is based in Pyongyang. Pyongyang is defended by a complex network of forces. The Supreme Guard Command, while tasked with keeping the Kim family and palaces safe, also coordinates with the Pyongyang Defense Command, III Corps, the Pyongyang Air Defense Command (as part of the Air Force), and the various internal police agencies. In all, this provides up to 350,000 soldiers and police stationed in and around the capital (many of the Supreme Guard's 200,000 men are not within Pyongyang, perhaps half are stationed across the country at various palaces).

Sangwon covers approximately 1.98 sq. km. The tower is concrete, and the facility has not undergone any substantial upgrades since at least 2006.

An interesting note is that Sangwon is less than 5 km away from a replica of the Blue House (South Korea's presidential residence) which was constructed in 2016, and was the site of a training exercise involving both paratroopers and other special operations forces storming the mock residence.  

Sonchon (39.823° 124.918°)

Sonchon was constructed sometime between 2014 and 2017 (there's a gap in images for the intervening years) and is a traditional steel lattice tower, but unlike most of the others, it only has two drop arms instead of three. If it is part of the Air Force, it would likely be under the 1st Air Combat Command headquartered at Kaechon. In the event it is Army, it would be controlled by VIII Corps. 

As mentioned earlier, this site was first brought to the public's attention (as far as I am aware) by Nathan Hunt in July 2020. One reason for why it may have gone largely unnoticed is that it is neither part of a major training base nor is it close to a major airbase (the closet being Panghyon in Kusong, 26 km to the northeast). However, it is also 20 km from Kwaksan AB. Kwaksan is a secondary air base, but it does have a wing of between 50-60 An-2s stationed there.

Although the training base is small and fairly nondescript at first glance, it happens to contain an underground facility (UGF), which makes the addition of a jump tower curious as they are seemingly unrelated structures.

The Sonchon underground facility doesn't appear to be part of manufacturing, so it's likely storage. Over the years some minor changes have been made to the site but this image from 2010 most clearly shows the berms and entrances.

Taetan (38.159° 125.222°)

Named after the Taetan Airbase (aka T'aet'an-pihaengjang Airbase) that is just 3.3 km away across a range of hills, Taetan is one of the older training bases that has undergone recent upgrades.

In 2015 the steel tower was clad in either steel sheeting or wood to cover up the lattice structure, and in 2019 a row of six jets was added (likely non-functional planes to aid in training and getting recruits familiar with the equipment). Additionally, several buildings were being constructed across the parade ground.

The base covers approximately 3.5 sq. km and is divided into the airborne training section and the administrative/barracks section to the right of the airborne side.

The semi-circular area around the tower is 110 meters in diameter. From the tower to the small "landing zones" where recruits drop is roughly 15 meters (the drop arms also extend 15 meters from the main tower structure).

Taetan may be closest to the Taetan AB but it is also the only jump tower in South Hwanghae Province which is under the KPA IV Corps and the KPA Air Force 3rd Air Combat Command. These top-level commands oversee the whole province (and other areas). Within the province are six additional airfields, some host fighter jets and others are only for smaller craft like the An-2. Any necessary training for personnel at the other airfields would likely be sent to Taetan.

Taechon (39.864° 125.498°)

Taechon's steel lattice tower is a mere 4 km south of the Taechon Airbase which serves as the headquarters for the 5th Air Transport Division. It's a very small base but in 2018-2019, over two dozen buildings were constructed. It is also only 2.3 km away from a large military complex that has its own conventional training course.

At the larger base, historic imagery reveals various aircraft and helicopters, as well as tanks and other equipment. This suggests that the complex has both training/educational purposes and a maintenance role. There are also two underground sites within the complex. 

Given the airborne training base's proximity and the larger base's involvement with aircraft, it's hard to ignore the likelihood of the two places being connected.

Unsal (40.009° 125.879°)

The concrete jump tower was built sometime between 2012 and 2014 next to the largest urban warfare training center in North Korea. The whole base covers approximately 2.75 sq. km and there are other military sites nearby.

As we see again, there is an airborne site and urban warfare site being placed together. In all, four airborne training bases have obvious MOUT training facilities as well.

The purpose of the North Korean parachutist is to infiltrate and conduct operations behind the lines. They "pertain to creating total havoc deep inside South Korean territory. This includes attacking key infrastructure and military installations, and generally sowing massive terror among the already frightened South Korean populace," making their positioning within MOUT facilities a logical step.

The addition of the jump tower ca. 2014 isn't the only thing that has changed at Unsal. Around the same time, a small addition to the training grounds was added, and between 2017 and 2019 the administrative area of the base was modernized and several of the MOUT structures were demolished and replaced with apparent barracks.

Unsan (39.365° 126.052°)

As with the Taetan tower, the one in Unsan also had its lattice partially clad in either wood or steel in 2015. The landing area around the tower has a diameter of about 70 meters.

It is surrounded by numerous other training areas including shooting ranges, an equipment familiarization site (labeled "aircraft row" in the image), and it is located in between two larger military facilities. Given that all of the sites are directly connect via road (and without any security gates between them), I think it is actually one single large base approximately 4 sq. km in size.

Unsan is 14 km away from the important Sunchon and Pukchang airbases. It is also very close to an unusual defense complex. The complex has a variety of buildings with different purposes as well as equipment bunkers, possible educational buildings, and its own training grounds. 

I have asked several people about the complex and no one has been able to offer a definitive identification. However, most suspect that it is either a military academy or a research and development facility. The complex and airborne training center are also connected via road.


The sheer number of these facilities, their association with special forces facilities, and the fact that the regime has been willing to spend new resources on their capabilities and capacities means that North Korea's airborne troops and special operations forces will continue to pose a threat to the peninsula, and will be high on the list of forces to counter during any war.

Just because their facilities and equipment seem antiquated, doesn't mean they are without teeth. Wooden biplanes can fly low, evade most radars and surface-to-air missile systems in the region, and deploy highly motivated and trained troops to any point in South Korea. The An-2 fleet doesn't require major airfields, and in fact, can take off from any compacted dirt surface that has a straight run of 487 meters, turning plenty of highways into makeshift runways. (For comparison, fighter jets can require 2,500 meters or more of runway length.)

North Korea has a history of using their special forces in all four domains (land, air, sea, and cyber) to conduct operations against South Korea including assassination attempts and sinking ROK vessels.
Having robust airborne and special operations forces will enable the North to inflict significant damage during the opening stages of a war and enable them to continually harass the military and people of South Korea even in times of "peace".

North Korea has never been one to hide their true intentions. Be it with ballistic missiles, nuclear warheads, new submarines, or matters with their conventional forces, the country always broadcasts what their goals are.

In previous military parades, questions were raised about how "real" various weapon systems were to "just how the hell did they acquire them?" Were they real missiles or just bits of metal welded together to make for a good show? Did they build them domestically or do some creative engineering of foreign equipment?

Even with the most recent parade, questions surround the massive new ICBM and its transporter vehicle. Other questions were asked about the new battle tank displayed.

But each time questions are raised, the world ends up seeing fully functional systems within a year or two, not simply parade models. We see activities happening at the Sinpo submarine yard almost monthly, and after nearly a year of waiting, we received our first look at North Korea's new "strategic weapon" (now being called the Hwasong-16 ICBM).

The same must be said for the country's conventional forces. They broadcast what they're doing.

We should keep in mind that these additions to the country's arsenal have all happened in less than a decade under Kim Jong Un, and that 40% of the airborne training sites established throughout the country were done under Kim Jong Un. Many other military changes and developments have occurred, and others are being developed as I write this.

With these additions, the regime is talking. Are we listening?

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Amanda O., Anders O., GreatPoppo, John Pike, Kbechs87, Planefag, and Russ Johnson.

--Jacob Bogle, 10/15/2020

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Open-Air Theaters Spread Across the Country

A hallmark of Kim Jong Un's rule has been the creation of entertainment centers. Be they amusement parks, ski resorts, children's traffic parks, and even "4D" theaters, new recreational facilities have popped up all over the country.

Packed house during the reopening of the Pyongyang Youth Open-air Theater. The theater was first built in 1959. KCNA Jan. 17, 2020.

Included in that mix are open-air theaters. Coinciding with the renovation of the Pyongyang Youth Open-air Theater, new theaters are under construction in nearly every provincial capital and some select other cities. In Chongjin, Haeju, Kanggye, Nampo, Pyongson, Rason, Sariwon, and Sinuiju, construction is well under way or nearly completed. Hamhung's theater is in the very initial stage of construction, and Wonsan already has an established open-air theater. 

The construction of most sites began in 2018 but has yet to be fully finished at any of them except for the refurbished Pyongyang theater.

Plays and film have always loomed large in North Korean culture with nearly every town having a traditional movie theater built/rebuilt almost immediately after the Korean War. Kim Jong Il, especially, loved movies, plays, and opera. He wrote numerous letters and books on the subject, including On the Art of Cinema and On the Art of Opera. Each explaining in detail his views on the subjects and how they can best serve the state's goals through "socialist art" and as tools of indoctrinating the people with correct forms of thought.

And while everyone in the country knows they're being propagandized to, a lifetime of exposure has taught them to tune out the obvious stuff and enjoy the stories themselves. Indeed, North Korean's are quite the vocal art critics - in their subtle ways to avoid accidentally criticizing the regime. A good film, play, or song will rapidly make its way through the cities and into the countryside.

Soon after Kim Jong Un came to power, in recognition of the people's love of film, "4D-rythmic" theaters began to be built and now there's one in most large cities. With their distinctive architecture, they're easy to spot.

Built in 2014-2015, the 4D theater now sits just 100 meters away from the new open-air theater. These facilities are on the grounds of the former Nampo Sports Village. Built in 1973, only the stadium and regatta course were ever completed.

Participation in "mass-based art" has long been promoted with, "All provinces, cities, counties, industrial establishments and cooperative farms across the country have halls of culture, libraries and reading halls. Theatres and halls of culture in different parts of the country are equipped with facilities and musical instruments necessary for cultural and emotional life and artistic activities of working people." - Naenara, July 20, 2020

There is some variation in size with each of the new open-air theaters, ranging from 65-80 meters front-to-back and 85-100 meters at the widest. The existing Pyongyang theater is approximately twice the size as the newly built ones.

Sinuiju theater still under construction as of Nov. 27, 2019.

In the case of Sinuiju, there are 38 rows of seating arranged on three levels and into 13 sections. The Pyongyang Youth Open-Air Theater has seating for 10,000 and the theater in Haeju is said to have a seating capacity of 5,000. Given that Haeju is closer in size to the others, all of the new theaters probably have a seating capacity ranging from 5,000 to 7,000.

These theaters are also used for things other than plays and performances. Films can be shown, lectures given, and educational classes are provided. This not only makes them an important part of North Korean culture but they also provide the state with another venue for instilling propaganda and disseminating the wishes of the Korean Workers' Party. 

Primary construction of the Rason Open-Air Theater only began this year. As of July, there was still a lot of work left to do. While most theaters are located amongst the rest of the town, Rason's is positioned 200 feet above on a hillside overlooking the bay. No doubt the views will be great once it's finished.

The Pyongyang theater had a set of solar panels added to its roof. It is likely that the other new theaters will also include solar power. This fits in with the country's incremental adoption of green energy solutions to their otherwise extreme electricity shortage. 

Provincial capitals usually have a handful of distinctive features (like joint murals of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il) that other cities tend to lack. However, certain things eventually make their way into other important cities after their popularity has been assessed in the capitals. I wouldn't be surprised if these open-air theaters end up spreading to a few more cities in the coming years.

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Amanda O., Andres O. GreatPoppo, John Pike, Kbechs87, Planefag, and Russ Johnson.

--Jacob Bogle, 9/26/2020

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Markets Still Grow Despite Economic Headwinds

Researching North Korea's economic development is always fraught with difficulties. The state offers very little in the way of concrete data, and state media predominantly focuses on single items (like a factory or amusement park being built) and gives exaggerated reports on national trends. At least, until Kim Jong Un came to power. 

While the amount of reliable information is still sparse, Kim Jong Un has broken with tradition and hasn't been afraid to speak openly about the difficulties facing the country. He has even blamed the bureaucracy itself on occasion instead of always chalking up problems to sinister western forces or on a single bad administrator.

Pyongyang Central District Market. Yonhap, 2006.

It is clear that the people's lives have improved since the days of Kim Jong Il but to what extent that trend has carried on into the last few years is murky and appears to be fairly uneven. How much the civilian and military economies have undergone structural changes under Kim Jong Un is likewise murky. However, all one has to do is pull up Google Earth to see billions worth of construction activity over the years, and to examine their missile tests to tell that Kim has certainly surpassed his father in the military sphere. 

Now, before you start accusing me of calling Kim Jong Un a reformer, I'm not. But it is irrefutable that his governing style - while still autocratic - is somewhat different from that of his father's. Many of the obstacles and opportunities facing this generation are also fairly different than the ones facing the famine generation, so, naturally, the economic dynamics are going to change.

Markets for things like handicrafts have always been allowed in North Korea, but markets for selling grain, consumer goods, etc. were forbidden. That all changed during the course of the famine when farmers' markets popped up along roadsides across the country as people picked survival over obeisance to the state. In turn, the government has sought to regulate them (thus giving tacit approval to their operation), and according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the state earns between $60 and $70 million annually from fees and taxes imposed on the markets as of 2018. Over the past decade or so the number of approved markets has roughly doubled, and as of this year, I have been able to identify 443 of them. 

This implies a fairly robust civilian economy, even if it is faced with numerous obstacles (particularly in 2020 as the result of COVID-19 and after multiple typhoon impacts). Specifically, the service sector, retail, and construction have all been growing drivers of the economy for at least a generation.

How much of this can be attributed to the fact Kim was left an "inheritance", reportedly worth up to $5 billion, that he was able to invest in weapons and economic construction, how much is due to illicit trading activities, and how much may be due to a civilian economy that has become even more market-oriented despite the regime's protestations can't fully be known. Regardless, the results are the same.

To demonstrate that the civilian economy is still growing despite internal and external economic pressures (including sanctions), I want to show some changes that can be seen in 23 markets across the country. (A list of these markets can be found at the end of the article.)

These changes have all taken place from 2015 to 2019 and includes markets in major cities and in more rural areas. The changes are: the building of entirely new markets and the expansions of existing ones.

Since 2015, at least thirteen new markets have been constructed with a combined area of approximately 47,271 square meters (508,820 sq. feet) of new selling space. The largest of the new markets was constructed in Chollima (Kangson) in 2019 and ranks among the largest markets in the country, covering 15,920 sq. m (171,361 sq. ft.).

Google Earth image showing the recently constructed market. An overflow crowd is also visible.

Additionally, since 2015 at least eight other markets have undergone relatively substantial expansions, and two more were converted from open-air markets to being housed in buildings. Between the expansions and added covered floor space, the total additional area equals 18,906 sq. m (203,502 sq. ft.).

The result of these changes is that there has been an increase of 66,177 sq. m (712,323 sq. ft.) worth of market space in just four years.

According to CSIS, the largest market in the country generates the equivalent of $36/sq. m in revenue to the government each year. If we make a simple assumption that these new spaces will generate only $15 per square meter, that still represents nearly an extra $1 million a year going to Kim Jong Un's coffers (solely from fees and taxes at the markets). The regime generates additional revenue through the process of transporting goods, trading permit fees, paying bribes to border guards and officials, etc. 

The fact new markets were also built after 2017, when economic sanctions against North Korea reached their height, tells us that the country's domestic economy and illicit trade is likely more robust than is generally thought. 

This is backed up by Panel of Expert reporting by the United Nations that claims the country could be illegally importing three to eight times the amount of petroleum products it is legally allowed. That also helps explain how the regime has been able to build scores of gas stations in recent years which are estimated to consume the equivalent of the country's entire legal fuel import amount. Other illicit trading involves coal, seafood, and even sand exports.

And while COVID-19 has placed a tremendous strain on the economy, North Korea is still managing to build the largest hydroelectric project in its history, construction of the Pyongyang General Hospital is nearing completion, and the capital has embarked on a housing building boom.

Additional projects like multiple small hydroelectric dams, large collective farms (such as the Jangchong Vegetable Farm), and various construction projects that can be found in most medium and large-sized towns, all point to a country that is not stationary. 

Clearly, the misallocation of resources on things like nuclear weapons and future missile tests places a burden on economic growth. And the extremely poor state of the country's electrical grid, transportation system, and healthcare network means the country is in many ways still trying to fully recover from the downfall of the 1990s, but economic progress can nonetheless be seen.

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Amanda O., Anders O., GreatPoppo, Kbechs87, John Pike, Planefag, Russ Johnson, and Travis Murdock.

--Jacob Bogle, 9/14/2020

The 13 newly constructed markets are located in: Chollima (38.931° 125.561°); Jonchon (40.616° 126.459°); Kag'am-dong (39.565° 125.851°); Kangdong-Pangwha (39.161° 126.023°); Kimchaek (40.674° 129.181°); Kumya (39.540° 127.246°); Samjigang (38.412° 125.691°); Nampo A (38.753° 125.396°); Nampo B (38.735° 125.418°); Pyongsan A (38.335° 126.393°); Pyongsan B (38.327° 126.412°); Riwon (40.319° 128.663°); Sariwon (38.509° 125.767°)

The 10 expanded markets are located in: Chollima (38.928° 125.560°); Chongjin (41.790° 129.767°); Chongju (39.696° 125.219°); Hamju (39.855° 127.435°); Kangdong (39.138° 126.094°); Koksan (38.782° 126.669°); Sin'gye (38.500° 126.524°); Songang (37.887° 125.154°); Wolthan (41.413° 127.057°); Wonsan (39.175° 127.378°)

Friday, August 21, 2020

Renovations at Elite Hot Springs Appear on Hold Due to Economic Pressures

While Kim Jong Un was busy issuing orders to reconstruct the city of Samjiyon, to build kilometers of beachfront resorts in Wonsan, and constructing a new hot springs facility in Yangdok, he wasn’t going to neglect Onpho in the process.

Nestled in a valley a few kilometers northwest of the city of Kyongsong in North Hamgyong Province, the Onpho Holiday Camp, a hot springs resort, has been popular among the country’s elite for decades.

The original facilities at the Onpho hot springs resort as seen on Sept. 29, 2017. 
It is one of the oldest and largest such facilities in the country and has been visited by each generation of the Kim family. It is so popular to the elites that a secured villa complex was built next to the general spa area and a special “leadership train station” was added around 2010 to allow for speedy and secure transportation to the relaxing hot springs and mountain air that flows down into the valley.

However, during Kim Jong Un’s visit to Onpho in July 2018, he lamentedits very bad condition, saying bathtubs for hot spring therapy are dirty, gloomy and unsanitary for their poor management.”
By October, Google Earth images revealed that the resort was being renovated as temporary worker’s housing was visible as well as the land being cleared for new buildings.

Initial work activity at the resort in October 2018, with various temporary structure like worker’s huts and workshops visible.
After that initial activity, construction slowed down and little had been accomplished five months later in March 2019. That lull quickly changed as by September, at least fourteen buildings were under construction in the main resort area and a dozen multifamily housing structures were also being constructed across the river for employees of the spa.

During Kim Jong Un’s 2018 visit he mentioned that the bad condition of Onpho would “commit a sin” by drawing criticism from the people in a place that was so important to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Testifying to Onpho’s importance, it has an entire park and monument dedicated to the “exploits of the great leaders” with regard to the establishment of the resort.

The historic importance of the resort was commented on by the Korean Central News Agency back in 2015 when they stated that Kim Il Sung had visited the natural hot springs at Onpho as early as 1946 and ordered it be turned into a holiday camp. He then visited and gave “field guidance” a further twenty times, followed by visits by Kim Jong Il including one trip in 2008 after the area had been hit by flooding.

Kim Jong Un has made it a key feature of his rule to (attempt to) improve international and domestic tourism by spending hundreds of millions of dollars – perhaps a billion or more in total – constructing numerous tourism related facilities across the country including a $35 million ski resort, converting the Wonsan-Kalma area into a major tourist region (which included an estimated $200 million reconstruction of the Kalma International Airport), and more recently, discussing the need to modernize the Mt. Kumgang Tourist Zone that was opened as a joint project with South Korea back in 1998.

All of this, of course, despite the fact that North Korea doesn’t have hordes of foreign visitors to fill up those thousands of hotel rooms now available nor does it have a strong enough domestic economy to sustain all of the resorts with predominately local tourists.

However, the fact that Onpho plays a role in the Kim family personality cult and that it has been a longstanding feature the state could point to as evidence of Kim Il Sung’s love for the people, it makes sense that Kim Jong Un would want to renovate such a place that had become dilapidated.

Unfortunately for the regime, economic pressures don’t care about prestige projects and there has been very little new construction during all of 2020 as late as July.

The combination of existing economic problems and the added pressures relating to the COVID-19 pandemic have caused considerable difficulties for the country. As a reflection of this, it was reported by DailyNK on April 23 that the regime sent out a jointly signed document by the Cabinet and Central Committee of the Korean Worker’s Party decreasing the number of “national construction projects” from fifteen to just five.

While the report didn’t say what those fifteen projects were, two of the remaining ones are undoubtedly the Pyongyang General Hospital and the Tanchon Hydroelectric Project. Both have experienced funding and material shortages, with Kim Jong Un lashing out at officials over mismanagement regarding the hospital’s construction.

Onpho may be an ideologically important site but it isn’t fundamental to the country’s health or electricity needs, so the lack of construction this year may well be a reflection of economic problems and the April “joint decision document” cutting back on less practical projects.

The one area inside the large resort complex that hasn’t seen any renovation, somewhat conspicuously, is the leadership villa compound adjacent to the main spa facilities. This walled compound contains a primary palace building and six smaller villas.

The villa compound at Onpho.
After Kim Jong Un came to power, he wasted no time making improvements to a number of leadership residences including the addition of runways (such as at Hyesan and Changsong), he completely rebuilt villas within the “Forbidden City” district in central Pyongyang, and he undertook multiple changes to the Kim family primary Ryongsong Residence complex.

Nonetheless, what can be seen from commercial imagery does show substantial changes occurring at the holiday camp area. In addition to the hotel buildings (each around seven-stories tall) and new personnel housing, three unidentified but large buildings are also under construction. Located on the banks of the river, the three buildings have a combined footprint of approximately 6,814 square meters and are each multistory buildings.

Google Earth image showing the status of renovations on October 25, 2019.
Image dated July 2, 2020 showing only limited construction progress since 2019 except for the apparent completion of the new monument and museum park.
Additionally, a new monument area has been constructed that, as of the most recent Google Earth imagery, has two monuments and two buildings that are likely “revolutionary history museums” dedicated to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Such monuments and museums are common to ideologically important places and places that have received multiple visits by the leadership. And in true North Korea fashion, this portion seems to be the first new part of Onpho to have been completed; the final landscaping touches being visible by July 2, 2020.

Construction may have been stalled due to unforeseen events, but the addition of Onpho to the long list of recreational facilities that Kim Jong Un has either built or modernized shows that “bread and circuses” are still a central tenet of his regime. From diplomatic maneuvers to testing missiles, to spas and rebuilt towns, every dictator needs a well-rounded legacy to go along with the less-than-voluntary labor it often takes to build these places.

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Amanda O., Anders O., GreatPoppo, Kbechs87, Planefag, Russ Johnson, and Travis Murdock.