Friday, July 22, 2022

Tunnels to Nowhere

AccessDPRK's last article examined some of the largest underground facilities in the country. In keeping with the underground theme, I want to take a look at some of the more enigmatic tunnels in North Korea.

Plenty of the country's tunnels are part of factories, missile bases, or nuclear sites, but there are a few tunnels that seem to go nowhere. Maybe they're for storage, maybe they're part of secret escape routes for the Kims, we just don't know what they're really for.

In this article I will examine four of these "tunnels to nowhere" and in doing so, will hopefully shed a little more light on their existence and their nature.

Taenoŭn-san (41°57'34.23"N 128°41'37.13"E)

Google Earth image of vehicle entering the tunnel on Sept. 19, 2019.

The Taenoŭn-san tunnel near the Chinese border is one of the most recent to come to light. It was first mentioned by Nathan Hunt on Twitter on Jan. 20, 2020 but it has never been described through public intelligence channels, and so its purpose remains speculative.

Based on imagery from Landsat, the tunnel was constructed in 2016 but it didn't show up on Google Earth until late 2019 with an image dated Sept. 19, 2019. In that image, a vehicle can be seen entering the tunnel.

It has not been positively identified in the public sphere, but one possibility is that it could be a TEL/MEL with two missile launch canisters. A vehicle can also be seen on an image from Sept. 11, 2021.

The tunnel enters a small mountain from a river valley and has no exit point. The entrance is around 10 meters wide and access comes in the form of a dirt road. The road does not directly lead to any nearby military base. There are also no obvious security measures such as a gatehouse to the entrance or perimeter fence. 

This could be, in part, due to its remote location within Ryanggang Province (only 6 km from the Chinese border) making accidental discovery by locals almost impossible as a result of the travel restrictions in place within the country. Joy riding and exploring simply aren't part of the North Korean experience as it is in other countries.

Some theories as to its purpose is that it's a storage site or, perhaps, even part of North Korea's second-strike capacity - allowing the country to hide short-to-medium range ballistic missile TELs/MELs in a hardened site that could withstand an initial strike by an enemy, enabling North Korea to still launch missiles even after the primary launch sites have been destroyed. At this point, it's all speculation. 

Although the entrance is 10-meters wide, the state of the access road (a winding dirt path) would prevent the tunnel's use by ultra-large vehicles such as North Korea's giant 11-axl TEL for the Hwasong-17 ICBM.

Pyongyang-Sunan Tunnel (39°11'38.84"N 125°45'13.77"E)

This tunnel is located within the Sunan guyok (district) within the city of Pyongyang. It is less than 1.5 km from the Kim Jong-il Peoples' Security University and is within 5 km of six major military sites including a large storage complex, the Kim Jong-un National Defense University, and the Second Academy of Natural Sciences which is a major missile fabrication facility. Of course, direct association with any of those sites has yet to be ascertained. 

Construction on the tunnel began around April 2017 and went through to April/May 2019. The tunnel's entrance is around 11 meters in width. The access road is compacted dirt but that then turns into a paved area ~33 meters long as it approaches the entrance.

Some images have what appears to be framing to hold a tarpaulin or camouflaged netting. On an image dated April 11, 2019, the tunnel looks to be covered by the netting.

The complex also has an access tunnel, likely for maintenance, that's large enough for small vehicles to enter.

There is a spoils pile from the tunnel excavation along the southern side of the road that extends for ~140 meters. It varies in width from 10 meters to as wide as 16 meters. If we use an equal width of 10 meters and give it an assumed height of 3 meters, then the total volume of excavated material can be estimated to be 4,200 m3

This would allow for a tunnel that's around 95 meters long, 11 meters wide, and 4 meters high.

Onsong Tunnel (42°54'47.37"N 129°56'38.90"E)

Google Earth image of the tunnel dated March 10, 2022.

In the village of Ryongnam-ri within Onsong County a tunnel was constructed beginning in late 2017 and it was completed in mid-2019. There's nothing particularly interesting about Ryongnam-ri, especially from a military perspective, yet this tunnel is well protected by a berm and may even have a small blast shield located across from the tunnel opening.

Like the tunnel in Taenoŭn-san, it is 9-10 meters in width, however, no vehicles are visible in the available imagery from Google Earth. If the spoils pile is representative of the majority of the material removed for the tunnel's construction, it's unlikely that it extends more than 100 meters into the hillside.

The tunnel isn't connected to any obvious construction elsewhere in the area and seems to be 'randomly' placed at the rural village. Depending on which direction you travel from the tunnel, it's only 6 to 7 km away from the Chinese border.

Militarily, there's nothing especially interesting about Onsong County. It has a single air-defense site that protects the Wangjaesan Grand Monument and there's a small training base located 6 km northwest of the tunnel. Otherwise, the nearest important military installations are over 50 km to the south. 

There does seem to be a fence guarding access to the site, but it is situated next to civilian buildings and is not within a military base, making its purpose more difficult to identify.

Secret Road Tunnel (39°52'2.70"N 126°22'29.58"E)

This last tunnel is the oldest on the list and is, to me, to most unusual.

Located 13 km north of the city of Tokchon, the nearest populated place is a village called Sinphung-ri. 

The tunnel is a road that enters a hill and then disappears. The road is connected to a network of roads within a valley with only two entry/exit points, both of which can be blocked off. The valley contains military sites and other facilities that don't match the typical rural surroundings found in this area.

The tunnel road itself is treelined and itself forms a small separate network of paths, distinct from the main roads. While not exclusive to these purposes, treelined roads are a typical feature for military roads and those used by the Kims. 

Location of the area's roads, secret tunnel, and the 'north-south road' which eventually merges with another road leading to the Mount Myohyang Palace.

The tunnel doesn't have a clearly defined exit point, but one may exist at 39°52'18.11"N 126°22'52.32"E, which is 0.7 km away. There is an apparent spoils pile indicative of tunneling work, but the available images are not clear enough to make a definitive identification. 

There is also no clear evidence of major excavation work using Landsat imagery going back to 1984. However, the small base next to the tunnel did exist in 1984, so either the tunnel was constructed prior to that year - when I don't have imagery - or it was built after but they took care to keep the site very clean, so land disturbances aren't especially obvious in the lower resolution imagery that Landsat provides. 

There is a main north-south road in the valley. The tunnel road connects to it and the possible tunnel exit would also connect to the main road. This road runs beneath Neultegi Mountain through a tunnel and continues on until it merges with another north-south road. This second road is protected and eventually goes under Myohyang-san, where it leads to a former mountain palace 12 km away. The tunnel under Myohyang-san was constructed ca. 1993.

The mountain palace was favored by Kim Il Sung and is rumored to be the place where he died. It was eventually demolished by Kim Jong Il.

This entire area, the valley, the treelined tunnel road, the second north-south road, and the area around Myohyang-san (Hyangsan) are all secured and traffic is regulated through the region. 

The region's security and the tunnel's connection with this closed-off road network is what makes this tunnel interesting. But unlike the tunnel through Neultegi, which is simply providing an efficient transportation route, the tunnel this post is talking about doesn't provide a better or safer route through the valley. In fact, if it does cut through the hill and exits on the other side, it would make the journey longer. From a strictly transportation viewpoint, the tunnel is pointless.

With all of this in mind, I think that the tunnel is either part of a larger tunnel network for the Kims as I have discussed before, or (particularly if it has an exit) that it could be a kind of emergency safe zone - a place where the Kim's motorcade could hide for a short period of time in the event of conflict or internal crisis until the surface roads became safe again.

Within 15 km of the tunnel are numerous military sites (including the HQ for the KPA IX Corps) and a series of other secured building complexes that are all located behind gates, roadblocks, and dead ends. It's within that wider network that this tunnel is located, and it is this complex interconnectivity that suggests this is no simple tunnel through a hill.

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Amanda O., GreatPoppo, Joel Parish, John Pike, Kbechs87, Russ Johnson, Ryan Little, and ZS. 

--Jacob Bogle, 7/23/2022

Monday, June 6, 2022

The Largest Underground Sites in North Korea

Kim Jong-un visiting the Kanggye Tractor Plant. Image: Rodong Sinmun, June 2013.

There are over 2,500 underground sites in North Korea that have been publicly verified. They fall into five main categories: Hardened artillery sites, underground factories, underground storage facilities, underground air bases, and the underground facilities at missiles bases. There's also the large underground nuclear test site at Punggye-ri, several underground navy bases, and some others that are used for communications and emergency command sites, but those only make up a small number of the overall sites.

Other estimates place the number of underground facilities (UGF) as high as 14,000, but that would include everything from civilian bomb shelters to not-exactly-underground covered bunkers. And things like bomb shelters beneath apartment buildings isn't something that using commercial satellite imagery can easily work out.

So, of the ~2,500 UGFs that I can directly point out to you, a few stick out as being exceptionally large.

A note on estimating sizes. There are several fairly easy ways to estimate the size of an underground facility. The simplest of which is to look at the spoils dumped outside. Measuring the width and height of the rock piles can give you an idea of the volume being excavated. You can also consider the purpose (if known) of the UGF and what it might require in terms of size, you can look at the distances between entrances and service adits, and take into account the geology of the hill/mountain being tunneled into. 

Unfortunately, many North Korean UGFs don't have spoil piles to examine; the debris having been carried away to better hide the size of the facility. And looking at the distances between entrances only tells you that a tunnel exists, not necessarily a large complex with multiple floors and a warren of passageways.  

And, unlike underground airbases or artillery sites, not every UGF in the county has been assigned a purpose within open-source intelligence. That adds another layer of difficulty in estimating the size of a facility.

Therefore, this list comes with a few limitations. But whether or not this list contains the literal 14 largest UGFs (excluding missile bases) they are nonetheless among the largest in country. Some are rather astounding in size, at least to me, considering the state of North Korea's technology and the tools and skills they have available.

With that in mind, here are 14 of the largest underground facilities in North Korea.

Arms factories

The Kanggye General Tractor Plant (40°57'28.72"N 126°36'22.75"E) is the largest underground arms factory in North Korea. Also known as Factory No. 26, it was established soon after the Korean War after the original small-arms factory was split into three, and each part moved to different areas of the country.

The term "tractor" comes from Soviet nomenclature that typically denotes a military factory, with tractors rarely being made at "tractor" factories. Mortar ammunition, rifle ammunition, and self-propelled artillery ammunition are among the more common items produced at the factory, but they are also responsible for manufacturing short-range missiles.

Externally, the factory covers around 99 hectares. However, the factory has multiple underground entrances that provide access to the interior of a 1.8 km-long hill. While the exact size of the plant isn't known, the height of the hill would allow for multiple factory floors and several kilometers of tunnels.

It is estimated that the plant employs at least 20,000.

One of its biggest chapters occurred on Nov. 30, 1991, when an explosion rocked the factory.

Before and after images from Google Earth/Landsat showing a large area of land disturbance indicative of an explosion and clean-up efforts.

A mishandling of explosive material led to a small fire that eventually spread and caused a major explosion. Officials shut down communication in the area to stop news of the explosion from spreading and the disaster has never been publicly acknowledged. 

However, Landsat imagery from the time does show that something major happened at the factory.

Based on measurements of the imagery, the explosion destroyed an area nearly a kilometer wide and likely damaged every above ground building in the factory complex as well blew out windows for kilometers around. 

It has been alleged that the explosion killed around 1,000 people. If true, that would make it one of the deadliest defense industry-related disasters in history, perhaps only second to the 1917 Halifax Explosion which killed nearly 1,800.

It took 3-4 years for the site to be cleared and reconstructed, and, possibly as a legacy of the explosion, no new residential buildings have been constructed facing the factory, although the area does remain populated.

Panghyon Aircraft Factory (39°53'6.52"N 125°13'56.52"E)

First constructed in the 1960s, this factory used to be North Korea's only aircraft factory and it is still the primary factory that produces replacement parts for the country's fleet of aging MiGs and J-6 copies.

The factory is nearly 1.5 km long and is positioned around a hill. The primary underground entrance is ~14 meters wide and with 91 meters of overburden, a very large underground factory could exist, occupying upwards of 100,000 sq. meters.

It is believed that during the 1990s and early 2000s centrifuges for uranium enrichment were manufactured and stored at the factory, with as many as 300 centrifuges being held there. This provided a critical industrial component to North Korea's nuclear infrastructure. There is no indication that the factory is still produces centrifuges today. 

Panghyon has also been the site of ballistic missile launches includingHwasong-14 ICBM launched on July 4, 2017.

Tonghungsan Machine Plant (39°57'11.97"N 127°32'48.35"E)

Tonghungsan is a large factory that is suspected of producing missile components and parts for mobile launchers. It is split into two main sections, above ground production facilities and the underground complex.

The above ground part of the factory has been undergoing a complete reconstruction since 2016 and now includes 19 production-related buildings, 11 administrative and support buildings, and the reconstruction also involved building 31 residential buildings and several other structures such as schools and cultural/communal sites.

The construction also extended to the entrance and security buildings that lead to the underground entrance. The primary entrance has two portals that are 60 meters apart. A service adit (portal) is visible 140 meters north and piles of excavation spoils can also be found 400 meters from the main entrance, and another pile is 820 meters away. Yet another adit is also located on the other side of the mountain, 1.3 km away from the entrance at 39°57'45.31"N 127°32'13.21"E.

Simply connecting these visible parts of the UGF suggests that there could be at least 291,000 sq. m. of underground space. If there are multiple levels, that could reach upwards of 400,000 sq. m. given the area's geology. Of course, large underground facilities aren't massive single caverns. They have galleries (halls), support structures, and may need to avoid weak spots in the rock, so the real size of usable space will be less than 400,000 sq. m., but it could still be the equivalent in size to an automobile factory or the Louvre Museum, all beneath a mountain.

Major Underground Airbases

Twenty-one North Korean airbases have underground facilities, but the following six bases represent the largest in terms of the underground tunnel length and the amount of possible internal space.

Koksan AB (38°40'34.89"N 126°35'40.69"E)

Koksan AB consists of a single 2,496-meter-long runway and is home to the 86th Air Regiment and stations twenty-four MiG-21 fighter jets at the base. 

The underground facility employs two main entrances for jets to enter beneath a mountain that rises 120 meters above the facility. The entrances are ~185 meters apart and there is also a service access tunnel that's ~600 meters to the south of the main entrance. This suggests that the Koksan UGF could have 96,000 sq. m. of underground space.

Nuchon AB (38°13'52.09"N 126° 7'43.57"E)

Nuchon consists of a single 2,495-meter-long runway and is home to the 32nd Air Regiment (fighter-bomber) and is home to several J-5/MiG-17, MiG-21PFM, Mi-2 aircraft.

The tunnel connecting the two underground entrances is 575 meters long. At a minimum, the UGF covers 18,450 sq. m. but the hill above contains enough overburden to support a theoretical UGF up to three times that size if there are galleries that branch off the main tunnel.

Onchon AB (38°53'13.32"N 125°16'29.39"E)

Onchon is unique in that it has the only fully functional underground runway in the country. The base's primary runway is 4 km to the west.

Onchon is home to the 36th Air Regiment (fighter). At least 36 aircraft are stationed at the base.

The underground complex consists of an underground runway, with 700 meters of it going underground, and two underground entrances used to bring aircraft inside of repair and storage facilities. The two entrances are 280 meters apart.

Connecting the entry tunnels and underground runway area together would yield a UGF of 51,800 sq. m. If the internal layout is more complex with extra galleries, the theoretical maximum size grows to roughly 160,000 sq. m. 

Pukchang AB (39°30'44.60"N 125°57'28.76"E)

Pukchang is home to the 58th Air Regiment (fighter) and 60th Air Regiment (bomber) and has MiG-23MLs and MiG-21Bis stationed at the base; with upwards of 60 aircraft being stationed here at any given time.

Pukchang has three underground entrances that are spread out by 400 meters. I suspect that the internal layout of the UGF is fairly simple and does not greatly expand into the hill any more than what's needed to connect the three tunnels and provide some extra storage/maintenance space. This gives an underground area of 11,000 sq. m. at a minimum but likely no more than 16,000 sq. m.

Taetan AB (38° 7'3.70"N 125°13'21.97"E)

Taetan Airbase is home to the 4th Air Regiment (fighter) and has two runways. One is 2,810 meters long and the other is 2,490 meters. The UGF entrances are ~1.3 km away from the runways.

The two underground entrances are ~540 meters apart. Reviewing the area, I think the UGF consists of a single large rectangular structure (built from the tunnels and 'inward' toward the south) with no side galleries or other structures beneath the hill. A straight-line tunnel directly connected to the entrances yields and area of 19,000 sq. m. The surmised rectangular UGF would occupy 59,000 sq. m. There is no visible evidence of access adits or spoils from excavations further into the hill that would suggest a substantially larger facility.

And lastly, Kang'da-ri AB (39° 5'48.78"N 127°24'51.67"E)

Like Onchon, Kang'da-ri also has an underground runway, but the facility doesn't appear to be actively used by aircraft, leaving Onchon as the only active underground runway in North Korea.

The Kang'da-ri complex consists of a primary runway on the left bank of a river and an underground runway. The primary runway was modernized in 2009/2010 but has since been abandoned and left to deteriorate each time the river floods. 

The underground history of Kang'da-ri goes back to 1998 when the initial excavations into the small mountain began. Work has carried on in fits and starts, with the most recent work appearing to have stopped in 2018.

The paved portion of underground runway is 1,748 meters, with ~750 meters of that actually being underground. 

It has been claimed that the base is part of the 2nd Air Combat Division, but no aircraft can be seen in any of the images available on Google Earth. Additionally, Joshua Stanton has said that the runway is too small for fighter aircraft. 

The true purpose of the base is unknown, but part of North Korea's chemical weapons program is said to be based at Anbyon, a town just 11 km away. However, there are few military facilities at Anbyon that would be suitable for chemical weapons storage, but the underground Kang'da-ri runway is protected by large blast doors and it cannot be directly accessed by any major highway - adding to the site's security. So I think the base is a candidate location for weapons' storage (chemical or otherwise), particularly since the government has seemingly taken 24 years to build an incomplete "airbase".

Unidentified large UGFs

Hagap UGF (40° 4'54.23"N 126°11'22.74"E)

Hagap has been written about extensively (including on this site here & here), but it is in this section because we still don't know what the place is actually supposed to be. The two prevailing theories are that it's either an underground uranium enrichment plant or that it is part of the national archives.

The enrichment theory was put forward the moment Hagap became publicly known about in 1998. Given the construction of the Kangson enrichment plant near Pyongyang, and that Hagap still has not been completed, it would make its existence redundant (and very expensive) as an enrichment site. However, it could play any number of other roles within North Korea's nuclear program.

The other theory put forward is that it is meant to ultimately become an archives facility capable of protecting the most important documents and artifacts from even a nuclear blast.

After several years of apparently being dormant, new construction began at Hagap in 2011/2012 with a new underground entrance being excavated and the spoils were used to lay the foundation for an access road. This work was carried out methodically until in 2015/16 the pace of construction was sped up and new work could be seen throughout the eastern side of the complex. 

This construction coincided with underground work being carried out at the International Friendship Exhibition located a short 8 km away. The IFE is where North Korea houses the countless gifts, medals, and awards given to the country's leaders over the decades and is used in propaganda as proof of the greatness of the Kim family. 

Concurrent construction at both sites could merely be coincidence, but I think it might add a little weight to the theory that Hagap is actually meant to be part of a highly secured national archives, perhaps holding the true histories of Kims and government that are too dangerous to be accessed by anyone but the most devout followers of Juche or that it will hold the foundational documents and artifacts of the country to protect them from war or natural disaster.

Based on the locations of the underground entrances, there is a primary tunnel capable of handling vehicle traffic that runs for ~500 meters. The facility very likely also extends within the mountain for another 400-500 meters.

Sonjesan UGF (39°18'46.95"N 125°55'33.74"E)

Sonjesan is an interesting site. It is located in a random hill halfway between Pyongsong and Sonchon. It has no obvious industrial infrastructure or particularly tight security. At the same time, the roads leading to the UGF also go through multiple nearby military facilities, and it has four entrances.

The main entrance is at 39°18'46.95"N 125°55'33.74"E but the above image is centered on the two rear entrances at 39°18'35.52"N 125°55'50.47"E because they show up the clearest in the available imagery.

Connecting the four entrances into a simple rectangle yields a potential area of 95,700 sq. m., that's over a million square feet. Sonjesan also has visible spoils piles and examining those shows that at least 100,000 cubic meters of material has been excavated out of the hill. 

In 2020, the original buildings at the main entrance were demolished and new ones built. Another point of excavation that is almost certainly connected to the primary UGF was also opened in 2016, with the spoils pile growing each year into 2021. The pile contains approximately 6,300 cubic meters of material.

A nearby sixth site was constructed in 2017/18 at 39°18'14.84"N 125°55'40.66"E, along with a new military base, but I'm not sure if this tunnel connects to the main facility or if it's simply its own small UGF. 

Taedonggang UGF (39°10'25.07"N 125°56'43.60"E)

Located by the Taedong River, near the Kangdong Leadership Residence, its four entrances are spread out along nearly 300 meters and the site could also be connected to a large artillery position 520 meters away that itself has an underground component. 

The four entrances are grouped into two groups and I don't think they're connected to each other. So the actual underground facility may not technically be among the largest because of this, but the overall complex itself it rather large. The particular layout of the UGFs is also uncommon.

The roads leading to the entrances are also quite wide and would allow access to vehicles that have wide turning radii such as missile launchers or large artillery systems. 

Interestingly, at the end of the base is a large overhead crane, such as one might see at a containership port or factory. New buildings were added at the crane site in 2019. The presence of the crane could suggest that the base is, in fact, used more for storage and maintenance (perhaps even of industrial equipment) than as an active missile or artillery base. 


Abandoned/Unsused UGFs

The Kyongje-dong Bunkers 38°34'36.46"N 125°56'8.15"E

The bunker complex at Kyongje-dong are one of the more enigmatic facilities in North Korea. The two bunkers are much too large to have been purpose-built for missile launchers, they don't extend deep enough into the hillside to be a typical storage facility, and they aren't part of a factory or other industrial infrastructure. 

Joseph Bermudez and Victor Cha over at the Center for Strategic and International Studies helped to shed a good deal of light on the bunkers. It is perhaps the most detailed open-source report on them.

The initial preparations for construction took place in the 1980s, but primary excavation work began in 1993. The facility was completed in 1998.

The two bunkers have entrances 40-meters wide, and they each have a large concrete pad in front that measures 60 by 40 meters. The entrances are protected by blast doors, and the earth-covered bunkers themselves are approximately 60 meters long.

The CSIS report goes on to say that the facility is most likely a reserve site that would serve as a forward operating base for MD-500 helicopters in the event of war, allowing special forces operations to penetrate much further into South Korean territory than other existing heliports would allow.

Hamhung abandoned UGF - 39°59'50.27"N 127°42'52.09"E

This site is 17.5 km northeast of downtown Hamhung. When I first came across it, I thought it was a mine, but a closer inspection of the main area reveals what is apparently a large tunnel protected by what can only be described as blast doors.

Looking at historical imagery on Google Earth shows that work began at the site in 1996 and work was ongoing in 2008. The UGF sits at the end of a valley, with the rest of the valley filled with numerous support buildings spanning 1.7 km. But by the early 2010s, work was halted. Nearly all of the buildings were then removed in two phases, one in 2016 and the other in 2021.

The primary tunnel face is ~45 meters wide and there is what looks to be a large metal frame to hold protective doors. A second entrance was created but has since been closed, possibly as the result of rock collapsed. 

The crane that was used to move materials into dump trucks has been kept in place.

It's still possible that the site used to be a mine, but if so, its design is unique in North Korea. If it was meant to be an underground facility, I think geologic problems developed as they dug deeper into the mountain, perhaps causing severe leaks or internal collapses. This wouldn't be the first time a UGF in the country had to be abandoned due to collapse. A coastal defense battery had a large cave-in back in 2016.

I also want to add an honorable mention to the network of tunnels that protect the Kim family. These road and rail tunnels connect various palaces and military command centers together, enabling the Kims to move around the country securely during a time of war or to evacuate one place and get to another. Most of this network is still hidden but there are some known/suspected parts of it that rise to the surface and can be seen by all.

One tunnel is particularly well known. It is a two-lane paved road (39° 9'50.83"N 125°59'26.98"E) that dives beneath the Taedong River near the Kangdong Palace and then reemerges a kilometer away. It is surmised that there is another tunnel that pulls off from the main one and connects to other elite areas in the region.

Another part of the network uses the country's railways. The Obong-ri Elite Train Station (40°18'18.13"N 125°12'18.72"E) is positioned in a mountainous region north of Kusong. The entire complex encompasses roughly 17 sq. km and contains two train stations, housing for personnel, various support structures and it has two rail lines that go into a hill and disappear. It is not known if this is simply an underground train repair center or if the lines continue underground and could carry Kim Jong-un many kilometers away on his armored train without anyone knowing.

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

--Jacob Bogle, 6/5/2022

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Phishing for AccessDPRK

Every so often NK News will report on mass attacks against North Korea researchers by North Korean agents or pro-Pyongyang groups.

From hacking attempts to phishing, I have been the target of half a dozen of these attacks and possibly more that I'm not aware of.

One of the common methods used is to impersonate a real journalist from a real news agency, and they will send you an email with a list of questions for their "upcoming article". If you don't notice the attempt for what it is (like by observing the email being used is from a free account and not a business one) and you send them your replies, they'll turn around and send you a password protected Word document saying they have some extra questions or want your input on the final draft prior to publication.

If you download the file and try to open it, it can unleash a range of attacks against your computer or phone, or download some malicious code that just sits there, quietly sending the attacker all of your activity.

The latest attempt to scam/hack/infect came in the form of an interview request. But you know what? Instead of just ignoring the situation, the faux questions they asked were actually kind of interesting and are on a topic many have been considering lately - what impact the war in Ukraine might have on North Korea's behavior.

So just for fun, here's what I would have said in the event I was actually being asked these questions by a legitimate reporter.

Question 1: Some analysts argue that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may make North Korea much more reluctant to give up nuclear weapons, given that Ukraine has now been invaded by Russia after it abandoned its nuclear arsenal in exchange for security guarantees under the Budapest Memorandum. This certainly looks similar to an agreement made between Trump and Kim Jong Un in Singapore in 2018. What do you think about this kind of argument?

Reply 1: North Korea's nuclear program dates back to soon after the Korean War. It has been an integral part of both the military and political landscape for decades. And the leadership already learned the lessons taught by the deaths of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, which is that giving up your nuclear program is no blanket guarantee of regime survival.  

So, I don't think the invasion of Ukraine will have much of a direct influence on North Korea's thinking regarding survivability as they already strongly doubt the West's sincerity. 

A major flaw with the Singapore agreement is that it largely repeated what was agreed to in previous agreements going back to the first Inter-Korean summit in 2000, and it didn't provide a framework or guidance on how to actually accomplish the goals it set forth. In other words, unlike the Budapest Memorandum which was a legally binding agreement as part of Ukraine's accession to the Nonproliferation Treaty, the Singapore agreement was symbolic and aspirational; something either side could easily ignore.

Question 2: While the Biden administration is concentrated on the evolving circumstances surrounding Ukraine, possibly lowering its guard in the Asia-Pacific region, North Korea may try to develop new type of weapons including ICBMs or carry out nuclear tests. What do you think about North Korea’s future developments?

Reply 2: One common misconception about North Korea and the Kim regime is that they're mysterious and irrational. To the contrary, they can be quite transparent about their goals if one pays attention. Kim Jong-un laid out a series of military goals at the Eighth Party Congress in 2021 that included everything from developing hypersonic missiles to tactical nuclear warheads and even launching a military reconnaissance satellite. 

North Korea also never closed the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site, they only destroyed the tunnel entrances which could quickly be repaired if needed. Low-level activity has been seen throughout the wider Punggye-ri complex every year since its "closure" in 2018, and the government has recently begun the process of repairing the tunnel entrances and are likely preparing for another nuclear test. Additionally, Kim Jong-un said that he no longer felt bound by the self-imposed nuclear testing moratorium, and in January of this year, North Korea announced that it would consider restarting all of their suspended activities. 

It seems clear that North Korea has been conducting covert weapons development and production throughout the last few years, despite claiming they had stopped, which enabled them to test hypersonic glide vehicles and rail-based ballistic missiles. And, clearly, the government has been planning to conduct more tests and produce new weapons, as Kim Jong-un explicitly laid out.

The issue isn't necessarily that the Biden Administration hasn't been focused enough on North Korea, but that North Korea has never liked feeling ignored. They have a history of missile testing and even engaging in direct attacks against South Korea whenever they feel the international community's gaze has fallen elsewhere (in this case, Ukraine). So it's certainly likely that a new missile test or even a nuclear test could be conducted soon. This risk is also enhanced because of the recent elections in South Korea and Biden's visit to Seoul and to Japan. During events like this, North Korea has a tendency of provocative behavior.

Question 3: Do you think North Korea believes that Biden is already a “lame duck” and sees this as a good chance to concentrate on developing new weapons?

Reply 3: The Biden administration has appeared to be slow in appointing the relevant special envoys and ambassadors to the region, and much of the United States' government has been preoccupied with domestic problems. The economic fallout from COVID-19 such as supply chain issues and inflation has indeed damaged Biden's prospects for the US mid-term elections and for his own reelection chances in 2024, so it is possible that Pyongyang is simply trying to ride out the clock and wait until the US has new leadership.

At the same time, North Korea hasn't exactly been dormant. They've conducted at least 17 missile tests in just the last 5 months and are repairing the facilities at Punggye-ri. Given the dramatic improvements made to their nuclear and missile programs over the last several years, it is my feeling that Kim cares less today than ever about who sits in the White House and isn't overly concerned with whether or not Biden would be capable of meaningful engagement. 

Considering that in April Kim Jong-un announced the end of North Korea's erstwhile "no first-use" policy and threatened preemptive nuclear strikes, it paints a story that Pyongyang is becoming bolder and feels more secure to do what they want (even if the actual risk of a preemptive strike is vanishingly low).

Question 4: Do you expect China will tolerate North Korea’s spate of ballistic missile launches and possible ICBM or nuclear tests? Do you think North Korea can or will maintain stable and amicable relations with China? Does Russia not afford to care about North Korea?

Reply 4: The short answer is, China has tolerated North Korea's actions so far, so why wouldn't that continue? Unless North Korea launches a full-scale war, nuclear or conventional, China will support North Korea. This isn't out of a sense of socialist brotherhood, but because it is in China's own interest to maintain the North Korean state.

China is directly responsible for North Korea's ability to evade sanctions and has been willing to supply the country with extra oil, luxury goods, and numerous other items that are banned by international sanctions. 

On occasion, it has tightened the enforcement of sanctions and admonished North Korea after particularly major events such as the 2017 nuclear test, but there is little to suggest Beijing would alter or reverse its decade's old policy toward Pyongyang absent a very serious incident - which ICBM launches apparently no longer qualify as. The rise in COVID cases in North Korea also makes China's continued support all the more necessary to avoid any potential destabilization of the country.

As for Russia, Putin and Kim have tried to improve relations and that has born some fruit including $10 billion in debt forgiveness, a 2015 agreement to construct a road crossing, and the expansion of the current railway crossing located in Rason. However, trade has remained minimal, and it would take more investments and time to further develop trade between the two countries.

In the wake of the war in Ukraine, it's likely that Russia and North Korea will seek to develop closer relations (North Korea was one of the five nations who opposed the UN resolution against the war) but I wouldn't predict any substantial shifts in policy. 

Along with China, Russia has also routinely blocked efforts to pass UN condemnations of missile tests and to impose new sanctions. And like China, Russia would rather have an anti-West nuclear-armed state on its border, than one that is closer to the West (which would be the result if North Korea began to cooperate).


I've publicly released tens of thousands of map locations and have written over a thousand pages combined worth of material on this blog, NK News, 38 North, Asia Times, National Interest, and others. If you want to know what it is I know so desperately, join my Patreon like everyone else and get access to exclusive information you won't find on the AccessDPRK blog.

Speaking of Patreon, I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Amanda O., GreatPoppo, Joel Parish, John Pike, Kbechs87, and Russ Johnson. 

--Jacob Bogle, 5/24/2022

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Military Economy - KPA Unit 810

Particularly after the famine of the 1990s, the Korean People's Army has been involved in a parallel economy aimed at helping to fund its own activities and to bring in foreign currency to support the regime overall.

The KPA has established shell companies and joint ventures, fish farms and fishing fleets, mushroom farms, construction organizations, operations to gain cryptocurrencies, and is involved in just about every other industry one can think of.

Peeling back the layers of fake company names, myriad alternative names for single enterprises, and trying to peer into the murky world of this parallel economy is a daunting task. But I would like to try to shed a little light on one of these military units that is not merely engaged in providing products for itself and the leadership but is also using its web of operations to engage in biological research that may not be so benign. 


There are four main organizations that I am going to focus on that are known to be under Unit 810's control: the large KPA Farm No. 1116, the Sinchang Fish Farm, the Raksan Offshore Salmon Farm, and the Pyongyang Institute of Biological Technology. 

The first is KPA Farm No. 1116. It is one of the most well-known military-controlled farms in the country as Kim Jong-un has visited it almost every year since he came to power. It is located next to the Ryokpo Palace on the southern outskirts of Pyongyang and has at least 386 hectares of land under cultivation (including greenhouses). 

Based on construction visible on Landsat satellite imagery, the farm was established ca. 2004. The farm is used to test out experimental strains of corn, rice, sugar-reed, and vegetables. And around 2008 a mushroom farm was added that subsequently expanded in 2013.

The Ryokpo Palace is surrounded by the farm, so it's plausible that the farm also provides food for guests and staff at the palace.

Kim Jong-un standing in a mushroom hall in July 2013, via KCNA.

The addition of a mushroom farm (built ca. 2008 and then expanded in 2013) is of particular interest as their trade with China and Japan has become an important source of foreign currency in the face of international sanctions and has helped to fund Kim's 'slush fund' that is used for everything from buying luxury cars to funding weapons activity.

Japan actually prohibits the import of North Korean mushrooms, but that hasn't stopped the government from trying to use pro-DPRK organizations in Japan to break the sanctions. 

The mushroom farm at Farm No. 1116 has seven halls where a variety of mushrooms could be cultivated. Indeed, the cultivation is different types of mushrooms is an express purpose of the farm. According to state media, it is technically controlled by a second military unit, KPA Unit 534, but the facility is fully integrated with the rest of Farm No. 1116. and both units are responsible for producing foodstuffs and operating various enterprises.

While there is no open-source evidence that this mushroom farm is a source of illicit products, its position within the military's economic network means that it could easily be used to produce items for smuggling. 

The main facilities of Farm No. 1116 were modernized beginning in 2017. The upgrade added 7,750 sq. meters of new greenhouses and a new production facility that covers approximately 750 sq. meters. The farm is also powered by two solar arrays that are a combined 3,600 sq. meters.

The Sinchang Fish Farm is located at 39.433883° 126.142233° and was constructed in 1997 based on Landsat imagery. It has undergone several rounds of improvements and now covers nearly 44 hectares. The fish farm's primary product is sturgeon.

Underscoring the farm's importance, a helipad was added in 2016 to facilitate visits from leadership, and Kim Jong-un is known to have visited in 2015, 2016, and 2019.

Production provides fish for the citizens of Pyongyang and to the armed forces. I haven't found official figures for its production capacity, but the fish farm is one of the largest freshwater farms in the country and is alleged to have an 80% survival rate for the fry.

View of the Sinchange Fish Farm from KCNA, April 17, 2019.

Interestingly, the hills surrounding the fish farm at Sinchang hide a large number of military storage bunkers.

This image shows the various onshore production facilities of the Raksan Salmon Farm.

Another fish farm operated by Unit 810 is the Raksan Offshore Salmon Farm located at 42.110443° 130.166090°.

Based on satellite imagery, the farm operates up to 10 vessels, with the two largest being 30-32 meters in length, and that they use over 2 dozen net pens, typically divided into two main groups.

There's quite a large gap in Google Earth imagery, but some time between 2006 and 2014, the fish farm facilities were completely rebuilt.

The bulk of offshore production occurs in the local bay which is protected by a peninsula to the east and two islands in the south. A larger peninsula in the west forms the western boundary of the bay and helps to create the protected environment in which the farming takes place. 

Lastly is a place that may not be as benign as fish farming.

The Pyongyang Institute of Biological Technology (평양생물기술연구소) is located next to the East Pyongyang Thermal Electric Plant on the southern side of the Taedong River at 38.969327° 125.692718°. 

The Institute has been known by several other names over the years. The 'Aeguk Complex Microbial Center' was used from 1997-2010 according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative. In 1999 the Compound Microbe Technical Research Station was combined with the facility.

In 2011, the complex was expanded, more than doubling in size, and was described in official media as a vitamin C factory. Finally, its current name was introduced by the KCNA on August 30, 2013.

The original microbial center prior to reconstruction.

The original center with its main building, algae ponds, and greenhouses covered approximately 15,800 sq. meters. 

Construction of the larger facility began in 2011.

The new complex, finished by 2013, now occupies nearly 40,000 sq. meters

According to NTI, there are over 120 "microbial pesticide" facilities in North Korea. These sites produce the liquid microbial stock that is used in fertilizer supplements. This is a perfectly legitimate industrial activity (produced all over the world) and can help improve soil health without damaging the environment.

The problem is A) this site is controlled by the military and B) "equipment used for BW [biological weapons] production are often dual-use for agriculture, making external monitoring and verification virtually impossible.

Kim Jong-un toured the facility in June 2015 and the images released caused concern among weapons experts.

Writing for 38 North, WMD expert Melissa Hanham wrote that "analysis of the images reveals that the facility—the Pyongyang Bio-technical Institute—can produce regular, military-sized batches of biological weapons, specifically anthrax."

According to Hanham, claiming that a facility is for "insecticide" (or pesticide) production has a long history as a cover for biological weapons (BW) programs including the Al Hakan Facility in Iraq and the Soviet Union's Progress Scientific and Production Association which was tasked with the ability to convert between civilian and military use to produce BW during war.

The equipment seen in the images also showed that North Korea had managed to break sanctions and import equipment that had been banned.

North Korea's BW program has long been shrouded in mystery and it has historically been thought to be in a rudimentary state, even by US intelligence. Despite the proliferation of open-source information about Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs, there still remains little in the way of concrete information regarding their BW program. North Korea proved to the world that they had an ongoing chemical weapons program through the assassination of Kim Jong-nam with VX nerve agent, but there are no known instances of the country using a biological weapon.

What is known is that North Korea has sought to develop BW and received samples of anthrax in 1968. It is generally assessed that Pyongyang does not have a comprehensive BW program complete with full-scale production capabilities and viable weapons, but that they have been researching biological weapons and continue to seek the ability to weaponize biological material.

The fact that this facility has the capacity to produce large batches of anthrax (if directed to) and that so much of the technology can easily be converted from civilian use to military, and, as Hanham went on to conclude "given North Korea’s history of BW research and the inordinate amount of expense and risk taken to import the banned equipment when they could have imported the pesticide itself without restriction, it is likely Pyongyang intends to use the facility in a similar way" to other dual-use facilities like that of Al Hakam, it is probable that North Korea uses the Institute to maintain a latent biological weapons capability.

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

--Jacob Bogle, 4/28/2022

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Kim Jong-un's First Decade in Power - The Next Decade

Kim Jong-un with his wife, leading DPRK officials up Mt. Paektu in 2019. Image source: KCNA.



Throughout this series, I have tried to draw from numerous sources to provide an accurate accounting of the first decade of Kim Jong-un’s rule and to limit the number of my own opinion-based comments. For this final article, opinion is about all that anyone could offer. Informed opinion, but opinion and supposition, nonetheless.

People have offered predictions about North Korea since its inception. That there was no way it could survive the Korean War. That Kim Il-sung would end the nuclear program. That Kim Jong-il would falter in the face of famine and the whole system would collapse. That Kim Jong-un couldn’t handle power at such a young age or that war is inevitable.

Those predictions were all wrong. At the same time, plenty of other predictions have been right. That the government would survive the famine because it didn’t care about cutting less desirable citizens off from food. That the country would achieve nuclear miniaturization. That it wouldn’t stop illicit trade activities regardless of the United Nations and especially regardless of the United States.

So, this ‘look to the future’ opinion piece is just as likely to be wrong and to be right and to have areas of grey as the future unfolds and becomes the present. With that caveat, I will attempt to look at the trends of the last decade, the changes, and what’s stayed the same from Kim to Kim to Kim to inform my own views of what the next decade of Kim Jong-un’s rule may look like.


COVID and the Economy

The most pressing issue that Kim Jong-un will have to resolve is that of economic contraction due to his lockdown of the country over COVID-19 fears. After two years of very limited trade and internal quarantine measures, the economy is suffering more than it has at any other point during his rule and the food situation, in particular, has reached a critical point.

Although illicit activities have continued unabated, bringing in hundreds of millions each year, there is little indication that those funds are being used to prop up the economy; rather, they are most likely being used to maintain Kim’s lifestyle, provide gifts to the elites to keep their loyalty, and to continue the country’s military buildup.

As such, legal trade must resume before a crisis becomes inescapable, leading to future disease outbreaks (such as from tuberculosis), a limited famine, or even popular unrest. Kim will also have to consider finally allowing vaccines into the country as COVID-19 stops being a pandemic and transitions to an endemic global illness that will be around for years.

Leaving no opportunity behind, the COVID lockdown actually provides Kim the opportunity to gain greater control over the broader economy and over the economic activities of the people as the ‘border blockade’ has made it even more difficult for unapproved cross-border trading to continue. This places the state in a better position to control and monitor what goods come into the country, and it has set up at least two decontamination centers to help facilitate the resumption of trade: one in Sinuiju and one at the Port of Nampo.

A test run at the Sinuiju center recently took place on January 17, 2022, when a train entered North Korea from China after a two-year border shutdown resulted in an 80% drop in trade with the country. The outcome of the train visit and how well the government thinks the Sinuiju facility handled the operation may allow for a slow resumption of trade in the near future.

One twist in North Korea’s economic story has been how Kim, in the early years, allowed limited reform and the markets to continue to grow, but under COVID he has reverted back to more anti-market policies, desperately trying to reign in free market activities and strengthen the state’s central control over the economy. How this struggle against marketization will play out is anyone’s guess, but one complication that Kim is currently having to deal with and will continue to need to contain in future years is the “tyranny of growing expectations”.

As people become accustomed to a certain living standard, they begin to expect more from their government and begin to expect that life in the future will be better than what they have today. In a growing globalized world, this works itself out through expanding free markets and liberalized governments. But in North Korea and other closed states in the past, it can turn into a major threat to the regime as the government cannot compete with the gains made by marketization, and as the people realize that the outside world is much wealthier and freer than what they have at home.

Kim Jong-un made improving living standards and access to consumer goods a key pillar of his rule since the beginning. Promising no more ‘belt tightening’ in 2012, the government is today telling people that they should expect food shortages until at least 2025. After the moderate but measurable rise in living standards of the last 10-15 years, if the government isn’t able to maintain upward growth, then the popular pressure of growing expectations can serve to destabilize the regime.

Should this meld with other pressures against the current system, an inescapable domino effect may occur in the future, leading to the end of the state. This has been one of the biggest threats to the Kim’s and it is something they have managed to avoid thus far, but no one knows where the ultimate tipping point lies.

Regardless of economic reforms or further ossification, one thing, of course, that continued throughout the pandemic and will continue well into the future is North Korea’s illicit activities. Whether it’s selling counterfeit goods, money laundering and theft, or busting sanctions with oil, fish, luxury goods, and other commodities, the state will keep relying on these ill-gotten millions each year to try to stabilize the system and keep the elites in lockstep with Kim Jong-un.


Weapon Development

Missile development is the next most important issue as Kim Jong-un works toward realizing his “wish list” as laid out in his speech to the 8th WPK Congress in January 2021. This list includes everything from developing improved ICBMs to hypersonic glide vehicles to tactical nuclear bombs and other weapon systems.

Kim Jong-un spent much of 2021 testing multiple weapons and showed off a wide range of equipment (some known, some new) during the “Self Defense 2021” exhibition. He also began 2022 with a series of seven missile launches that included its longest-range missile test since 2017.

Since the failed summits, North Korea has embarked on a series of technology demonstrators like the hypersonic glide vehicles (showing off two different designs) and rail-based missile launches. Having declared the country’s nuclear deterrent complete, Kim is going to need to continually develop new delivery methods and to improve his nuclear arsenal’s survivability, as it currently relies on a limited number of large, slow-moving TELs that cannot be easily replaced. This helps to explain the proliferation of weapon designs as well as radar and improved air defense systems.

I believe that future nuclear tests are unlikely, but they can’t be ruled out as Punggye-ri still has two functional tunnels. And after North Korea implied that the self-imposed moratorium on testing would no longer be adhered to, it does place future tests on the table.


In terms of sanctions, I think that it is unarguable that they have been an abject failure. Upwards of two hundred thousand citizens are still locked in prison camps, the country has tested nuclear weapons and created miniaturized warheads, North Korea has missiles that can reach the United States, and the Kim family is still firmly in control. However, one reason why sanctions have failed is that the enforcement of those international sanctions is rooted in each individual UN member state’s own interpretations of the sanctions and their own willingness to enforce them.

China has been integral to North Korea’s ability to skirt sanctions and carry out illegal activities. And while China occasionally gets tired of Pyongyang’s behavior and temporarily gets stricter with enforcement, the existence of North Korea is within their own national self-interest. This means that China will never do anything that might directly cause the collapse of the current government short of North Korea declaring war or causing significant damage to China itself.

Therefore, absent greater international pressure on China to plug the enforcement leaks and loopholes, China will continue to be North Korea’s lifeline and Kim Jong-un will continue using this to his advantage.

Until China becomes willing to strictly enforce sanctions or until either the United States or South Korea becomes willing to cave on major issues (all unlikely scenarios), North Korea is going to keep testing weapons. The goal of complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) is now completely unrealistic unless the United States is willing to go to war, which it hasn’t been despite the murder of multiple US military personnel and the assassination of multiple South Korean officials over the decades.

In my view, the only viable option is that of arms control, limiting the number of warheads and their yields, limiting the range of missiles, and limiting the numbers of launchers North Korea can have in exchange for substantial sanctions relief.  However, the human rights situation complicates matters as does Pyongyang’s history of ignoring agreements.

At least in the near term, we should certainly engage in talks but the longer-term position is likely to be merely “wait and see,” as neither side seems willing or capable of making the difficult decisions or want to risk losing face, and as North Korea hasn’t been patient enough for slower confidence-building measures prior to more substantial agreements.


Human Rights

Domestically, human rights abuses will assuredly continue. Kim Jong-un has shown little inclination to degrade the state’s system of prison camps and he has ramped up internal surveillance to levels not seen since Kim Il-sung.

Although Camp 22 was closed under his watch in 2012, many of the prisoners were merely transferred to other sites, and others are alleged to have been allowed to starve to death to enable the camp’s closure.

In contrast, prisons in Pokchong-ni, Kangdong, Chidong-ri, Yongdam, Nongpo, Chongjin, Hwasong, Pukchang, and others have all seen new construction or renovations to their facilities. Additionally, public executions outside of the prisons, within regular towns and villages, have reportedly not ended and are now carried out for things like watching certain foreign media.

Since coming to power, Kim Jong-un has directed the Ministry of Social Security, Ministry of State Security, the People’s Border Guards, and other relevant agencies to crackdown on defections and unapproved cross-border economic activity. In 2011, 2,706 defectors made it to South Korea. By 2018, only 1,137 defectors were able to make it to the South. However, COVID-19 gave Kim a great opportunity to ramp up the repression of freedom of movement.

Hundreds of new border guard huts and hundreds of kilometers of new border fencing have been erected during the pandemic. While anti-defection measures had been begun prior to COVID, nearly the entire northern border ended up with a double row of electrified fencing since the beginning of the pandemic. Although the ‘border blockade’ is ostensibly to prevent the spread of the virus from Chinese persons and goods illegally crossing the border, it has served to nearly end defections.

In 2021 a mere 63 defectors made it to South Korea.


Freedom of expression and thought have also come under greater assault, especially in the last few years, as Kim has solidified his rule and now looks forward to being the only Kim in charge for another generation or two, in the model of his grandfather.

There is no greater threat to a closed society than information and no greater threat to an authoritarian system than individuality. It is said that blue jeans helped bring down communism. This wasn’t because jeans come with guns or brings down economies, but because they became a symbol of capitalism and individuality. While the saying is overly simplistic, that basic article of clothing became subversive and was a reminder that the free world and its values were thriving, while breadlines and secret police were all communism had to offer.

Similarly, North Korea has relied upon the group subsuming the individual. The masses, as a unified whole, are what the North Korean government and society are built upon. The individual only exists as an entity for so long as they give themselves over the larger group and never turn their back on socialism by highlighting their individuality or demanding to be treated as a human being equal to any other.

This feature of all authoritarian regimes, left and right, is relied on to keep the masses in line and curtail any risk of nonconforming thoughts and actions. It is this feature that Kim Il-sung wielded to such a great effect that for a stretch of thirty years, almost no known public demonstrations or other protests occurred.

And after the breakdown of the information cordon in the 1990s, it is this feature that Kim Jong-un must learn to wield again, or else he will have to accept that permanent cracks in the system exist and may one day bring the entire system crashing down.

To this end, more and more effort is being expended on hunting down purveyors of smuggled media material, cell phone tracking and blocking technology has been installed along the entire Sino-DPRK border, and the government has taken greater steps to punish officials and police who turn a blind eye toward or take bribes to overlook illegal activity. Even attacks on everything from non-traditional hairstyles to using foreign slang have been couched in terms of national salvation – of restoring a true socialist community by going after impure, reactionary elements.

Kim Jong-un has even leveraged South Korea’s desires for diplomatic normalization to get the South Korean government to pass laws violating human rights within the ROK merely to appease him. But all that has done is hurt the South’s own legitimacy and standing as a democratic beacon in the region while enabling Kim Jong-un to limit the flow of outside information and culture into the country.

In my view, it’s hard to see a time when this rise in human rights abuses will end so long as the invisible yet existential threat of COVID exists. Of course, the government has never needed a real threat to its existence to lash out at foreign elements within the self-proclaimed racially and culturally pure North Korean community, but COVID happens to be a very real threat and provides an excellent opportunity for Kim to maintain his veer toward greater authoritarianism.


Future of Foreign Relations

Between assassinations, further missile and nuclear tests, and a never-ending list of illicit activities, North Korea has become more and more isolated under Kim Jong-un. The government’s anti-pandemic measures have only exacerbated this with the removal of diplomatic and foreign aid staff from the country. But North Korea has still tried to strengthen ties with China and Russia, as well as Eastern European and African countries through the exploitation of DPRK citizens as foreign labor and, occasionally, construction project leaders.

The long and turbid history of North Korea’s interactions with the world has created an unstable environment with little ingrained goodwill or trust among all parties. Its history with the United States has been particularly fraught.

The Clinton administration thought it had a workable deal in the development of the Agreed Framework, but the death of Kim Il-sung and subsequent famine radically altered the world Kim Jong-il was forced to face, and the Bush administration posed a much different threat in Kim Jong-il’s view after North Korea was labeled as part of the Axis of Evil and with the eventual invasion of Iraq. Under Obama, ‘strategic patience’ only allowed Kim Jong-il and eventually Kim Jong-un to continue their military buildup and created no real progress on the diplomatic front. With President Trump, ‘maximum pressure’ was about as unserious a campaign as one could think of. Despite the horrifying bluster with both sides threatening the annihilation of the other, maximum pressure was more like moderate suggestions, particularly as international efforts continued to hinge on China’s willingness (or lack thereof) to enforce the will of the United Nations.

After a year of a new administration under Biden, it has become obvious that the United States lacks the bandwidth to deal with Kim Jong-un. In the face of continual missile tests, failed summits, and mounting geopolitical problems elsewhere, Americans and the international community itself seem to be going numb to Pyongyang.

Launches no longer draw the media attention they once did and South Korea’s official announcements regarding activity at various nuclear facilities have basically become exact copies of each other, with only the dates changed.

In such an apathetic environment, it’s difficult to see how any progress can be made. And as Russia and China continue to serve as lifelines in the face of international will, dealing with Pyongyang can never simply be a bilateral proposition.

Of course, the only reason anyone even cares about North Korea is because North Korea made itself a problem. It has commanded the world’s attention for generations through threats and belligerent actions. Receding into the background is not the Kim way.

Kim Jong-un will eventually do something that catches the world’s eye once again, and we can only hope that the international community is willing to address whatever that is. Ignoring Pyongyang only emboldens the regime. And while there may be no good options currently and although there have been many failures over the years, discussion and diplomacy are still the best policy – even in the absence of grand agreements or apocalyptic threats. 


Tomorrow’s Personality Cult

The half-life of the North Korean cult of personality is roughly the reign of one Kim. During Kim Il-sung’s rule over the country, he was a genuinely beloved and respected leader. The cult under Kim Jong-il fell precipitously as upwards of 1 million North Koreans died under his watch, but the state’s system of indoctrination from birth and its security apparatus insured that the cult survived. Under Kim Jong-un, the cult has weakened further, with many young people reportedly not caring about the great ‘Paektu Bloodline’ or his alleged brilliance.

To counter this, Kim has taken multiple steps to shore up the cult, and, assuming he survives another ten years, these steps can be expected to continue as the cult forms one of the ideological pillars for the state’s very existence and must be maintained.

During his first years, Kim tried to solidify his rule by drawing direct comparisons between himself and Kim Il-sung. His appearance, dress, more personable qualities, and even riding around on white horses, all reminded the people that he was not just another leader but was the rightful heir to Kim Il-sung.

Even his ability to complete the country’s nuclear program and bring a United States president to cross the DMZ all underscored the divine blood flowing in his veins. Still, younger generations have been far more concerned with economic betterment and cultural exchanges than they have been with ridged ideologies. And this poses a long-term threat to the government.

Kim has taken the opportunities provided by COVID-19 to try to reestablish a sense of national unity through a shared crisis, and in doing so, has double-downed on the development of his own personality cult. To do this, he has turned the sacrifice of personal liberties into an expression of true patriotism, for only the Kim family, Juche, and the Monolithic Ideological System can save the country.

As part of this, he has attacked foreign cultural influences, particularly that of South Korean music and other entertainment, with a key focus on rooting out these influences from among the nation’s youth. A so-called “thought law” was implemented in 2021 that goes after those using South Korean slang, efforts have been redoubled to punish those watching foreign media, with executions in store for those accused of distributing the material, and even personal fashion choices have been attacked as being anti-socialist and part of the corrupting influence of capitalism.

With the information cordon that so dramatically cracked under Kim Jong-il being reestablished and cross-border travel becoming ever more difficult, Kim Jong-un is working toward rebuilding the ‘hermit kingdom’ of his grandfather, with as many vestiges of western influences wiped out as possible. The end results being a population less susceptible to revolution, greater government control over the people’s daily lives, less market activity, and it has prolonged the longevity of the Kim family’s rule over the country.


Succession & Future of Government

With questions about Kim Jong-un’s health dogging his entire reign, and the fact it is known that he has experienced medical emergencies, the matter of succession is more pressing than it otherwise would be for a ruler still in his thirties.

Kim Jong-un has made a series of structural changes to the rules of the WPK that could, theoretically, allow for the future succession of a non-Kim family member. He has also placed his sister, Kim Yo-jong, in positions of moderate official power while giving her substantial practical authority. She appears to be the most trusted person in his orbit and can routinely be seen following behind her brother taking notes and keeping meetings/events on track. Additionally, she has been given more leeway to voice her own views than anyone since Kim Jong-il was still being groomed by Kim Il-sung.

Given that Kim doesn’t have any adult children, killed his half-brother, and his other brother has largely been kept in the background, this points to Kim Yo-jong being the de facto successor in the event of an emergency.

Once Kim’s own children come of age, this is likely to change but for the time being, Yo-jong can be considered to be the second most important person in the country. While she lacks the needed official Party and military titles to take over, what’s important is Kim Jong-un’s faith in her and the fact that she has been able to build her own support base within the Party and even the military.


Kim Jong-un will also continue to reform the government and Party to fit the particular needs of his era. Loosening agricultural controls to improve productivity, seeking greater government revenue via market fees/taxes, the further militarization of the civilian police force, and the ongoing shift away from the Songun Policy have all made their mark.

What’s more, is as Kim has replaced older Party apparatchiks and military officers, he has opened up the opportunity to rearrange the inner workings of both organizations to cut down on corruption (which drains money and authority away from the central government), introduce and enforce his own ideological views, and he can gradually set up frameworks to deal with major crises of leadership such as if he became incapacitated or died, as well as to develop a more robust command and control system regarding nuclear weapons.

Trying to understand the decision-making process and the “why’s” within North Korea is often a form of reading tea leaves, but it is my suspicion that the cumulative effect of Kim’s efforts on the structure of the WPK and the military will lead to organizations that, in the end, will be markedly more modern and forward-looking, creating a more viable system for the future.


Final Thoughts

Contrary to predictions of the Kim regime collapsing or that Kim Jong-un would be a Western-minded reformer, as Pratik Jakhar has noted, his rule has been “remarkably resilient and consistent. Kim Jong Un has stayed within the confines of the framework established by his grandfather Kim Il Sung and inherited from his father Kim Jong Il. In the process, he has preserved state oppression, class divisions, purges, military adventurism, economic control and mandated glorification of the Kim family.”

Jakhar’s view sums up the last ten years and I believe it is prescience for the next ten years as well.

Throughout this biographical series, we have seen that although Kim has initiated a number of changes, they have been on the periphery and still uphold the core values of the regime. Massive construction projects and megafarms have always been part of Pyongyang’s agenda. The roots of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs date to soon after the Korean War and have melded into the national psyche, making their development an integral part of the state’s legitimacy. And there has been no decline in rampant human rights abuses nor has there been a move away from the personality cult.

External forces always elicit responses and policy changes to fit the moment, but they have followed tried and true formulas that have kept North Korea going for 77 years. Meaningful structural changes to the way things are done are never done in haste. What drift there has been over the years since the early days of Kim Il-sung has largely been incremental, with Party hagiographers and archivists taking care to erase any public trace of old policies that are no longer supported by the current ideological flavor.

Over the next decade, Kim Jong-un will undoubtedly face new challenges and will continue to face growing threats from within the country such as information sharing and marketization. But if the last ten years have taught us anything, it’s that he can be relied upon to employ terror tactics within and without, and that he is only open to reform so long as that reform can help ensure the state’s longevity and his premier position within it.

And until China decides to step up its enforcement of international sanctions, there is little reason to believe that things like missile tests, illicit trade, financial crimes, and human labor trafficking won’t continue.


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I have scheduled this project to run through to the end of the year, with a new article coming out roughly every 10 days or so. If you would like to support the project and help me with research costs, please consider supporting AccessDPRK on Patreon. Those supporters donating $15 or more each month will be entitled to a final PDF version of all the articles together that will also have additional information included once the series is finished. They will also receive a Google Earth map related to the events in the series, and can get access to the underlying data behind the supplemental reports.

Supporters at other levels will be sent each new article a day before it’s published and will also receive a mention as seen below.


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

--Jacob Bogle, 2/23/2022