Satellite imagery of North Korea’s Nampo port shows the DPRK appears committed to expanding the facility’s capabilities, despite successive rounds of UN sanctions aimed at limiting the country’s trade.

The DPRK’s Nampo port is the country’s largest maritime trading hub and contains facilities for handling or storing shipping containers, coal and other bulk materials and oil products.

Yet even as UN resolutions have targeted many of North Korea’s imports and exports, external pressure was not enough to dissuade authorities from continuing a program of upgrades to the facility.

Nampo’s container port area | Imagery: Google Earth

Recent satellite imagery shows apparent new upgrades to Nampo’s container facility, itself a smaller part of a larger overhaul.

While the small-scale construction of buildings in and around the container port has been taking place over several years, significant progress on larger buildings appears to have been made since early 2016.

A large flooded area immediately north of the container port has been gradually drained since 2016, with several new buildings being erected in the surrounding area throughout the year.

This area, according to Curtis Melvin – a researcher at the U.S.-Korea Institute – is the location of the former Nampo smeltery complex.

Significant construction and drainage work appears to have taken place in the area throughout 2017, including progress on the rapid construction of a multi-story four-building complex spanning approximately 22,500 square meters between May and September.

Commercial satellite imagery shows that construction of smaller buildings around the structure is ongoing.

Several new buildings have also been added on the western side of the container port, with the majority of developments occurring during a similar period – between May and October 2017.

“I think those are storage and trans-loading for container trucks bringing/taking containers to/from the port,” Scott LaFoy, a Washington-based satellite imagery analyst, told NK Pro.

Recent commercial imagery from mid-March also shows vehicle truck activity near the site.

The new construction at the site followed the addition of a fourth crane for loading and unloading in 2016, while the area’s northeastern corner has been significantly expanded over the course of two years.

The most recent Google imagery shows shipping containers occupying part of the newly constructed area, indicating it is now complete and in use.

“They have a pretty serious expansion going on in the northern parts of this container port,” LaFoy said. “Someone isn’t canceling port projects based on sanctions.”

Beginning in early 2016, upgrades to a dry dock and port facility immediately to the east are also visible.

A grassy section of the facility directly to the North of the main cargo terminal has also been altered.

The grassy section, as well as the majority of paved areas around it, are now completely covered with coal deposits, a development that imagery from Planet Labs Inc. shows began to take place in late November 2017.

Non-traditional coal storage area | Imagery: Google Earth May 19, 2017 and March 14, 2018

But the new buildings are just some of the changes visible from the air, with the port’s nearby coal and oil handling facilities also getting upgrades.

Planet Labs imagery from February 2017 shows the addition of a new building at the coal storage facility located east of the cargo terminal. The facility, which stores coal for export, added a new approximately 190-meter building over the space of just one month.

Commercial satellite photos taken in March this year also show some of the construction on Nampo’s largest oil storage facility at the port’s western end is complete.

Earlier NK Pro reports highlighted the ongoing construction at the oil terminal, which showed a new third pier. The most recent images show several ships docked at the apparently complete pier and an equally new oil storage tank just to the north.

The new pier and storage capability will likely improve the turnover of vessel refueling at the site, or could allow for more tankers to offload fuel products over the same time period.

But the need for the upgrade clashes with the current UN sanctions on North Korea aimed at limiting oil flows to the DPRK.

The UN Security Council (UNSC) first began targeting the North’s oil supplies in September last year and issued tighter restrictions in a subsequent resolution three months later.

Traffic at the new pier between March and April | Photo: Planet Labs

At approximately the same time, Beijing’s reported trade figures showed no fuel exports to North Korea, an apparent cut off which has now entered its fifth month.

Yet the abrupt reduction in supply was not enough to dissuade North Korea from continuing to expand the facility and a review of satellite imagery of the site shows the presence of multiple large ships at all three piers of the oil terminal since the beginning of 2018.

This includes the repeat coming and going of vessels, especially in March and April, implying that the terminal has been operational during that time.

Although the presence of vessels can be clearly observed during the months of January and February, large amounts of ice during the winter months may have affected how frequently the new pier could be used.

While North Korea’s centrally-planned economy is no doubt slow to respond to forces like sudden supply restrictions, the long-running upgrade program provides a possible indicator that Pyongyang may not have been overly concerned about the UN’s sectoral sanctions.

Edited by Oliver Hotham