Satellite imagery seen by NK Pro indicates activity taking place within several parts of the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), suggesting North Korean authorities may be allowing citizens to use parts of the facility.

A plot of land in the southwest of the facility adjacent to two factories vacated after South Korea unilaterally closed the complex in 2016 shows signs of notable activity in Planet Labs satellite imagery between August 01 and October 24.

Changes in the surface of the land – which high-resolution Airbus satellite imagery from January 2017 showed to be covered in dirt, grass and some trees – are clearly visible in the imagery, suggesting that the land there is being altered in some way.

Satellite imagery taken of the location between October 2016 to October 2017 shows evidence of changes, especially after August 01, 2017 | Pictures: Planet Labs

“To me this looks like North Korean workers/managers/guards/residents… making private plots of land to farm,” said Curtis Melvin, a researcher at the U.S.-Korea Institute in Washington DC and an expert in satellite imagery of the North.

“This is interesting evidence that people are occupying the facility.”

“Who these people are and what they are doing at the complex remains to be discussed,” Melvin added. “In the absence of additional data, I suspect that the military personnel that are guarding the facility are growing extra crops to supplement their diets.”

However, Prince Kim, the CEO of MAST, a South Korean firm which used one of the factories adjacent to the same plot, said he believed the color change could have been “caused by the existence of grass.”

In another part of the eastern side of the facility, next to a garage containing a fleet of buses to transport workers in and out from the nearby city of Kaesong, similar changes can be observed on the surface of the land.

Satellite images taken in October 2016 and 2017, respectively, show the emergence of square-shaped light colored areas on land that higher resolution imagery shows was also covered in dirt and grass in December 2016.

And similar changes can also be seen at several other places throughout the facility, indicative of more potential agricultural activity throughout multiple parts of the complex.

A spokesperson for South Korea’s Ministry of Unification (MOU) said they were not in a position to confirm or verify any details at this time.

Land next to bus garage shows emergence of probable artificial change between October 2016-October 2017 | Pictures: Planet Labs

The observation of the changes on the plot of land comes after North Korean state media in early October appeared to confirm a Radio Free Asia report which said that the North had been operating some of the South Korean built factories at the facility for over half a year.

Satellite imagery published by NK News in April also showed over 100 South Korean-owned cars to have been abruptly moved out of the complex, possibly for use in other parts of the country, an event which drew criticism from the MOU.

While South Korea unilaterally pulled out of the facility North Korea’s fifth nuclear test, the factories are still technically owned by South Korean businesses, who were not given sufficient time to fully remove all their property after the pullout ordered by the Seoul government.

North and South Korea agreed in 2004 that South Korean businesses at the complex could use the land rent-free for a decade, until 2014.

However, a rental fee was introduced in late 2015 that would require South Korean businesses to pay 64 cents per square meter for every year they used the complex.

Initially, the North requested South Korean firms pay for all of the land contained within the complex, but after negotiations the fee was dropped as not all was being used by Southern businesses.

North Korea’s probably usage of the land on Kaesong, and suspected use of the factories, didn’t surprise one observer.

“North Koreans tend to make agreements and it seems like they stick to agreements so long as they think they are being treated fairly,” said Andray Abrahamian, a research fellow at the CSIS Pacific Forum.

“But, if they perceive they’re being treated unfairly, then they consider the agreement null and void,” he said. “You’ve seen it in negotiations with the U.S., with Kumgangsan, and now here: it’s kind of how they view the world in a broader sense too.”

After South Korea stopped its citizens visiting the Kumgangsan tourism zone in 2008, North Korean authorities announced in 2011 that they would be expropriating the property and evicting remaining Southern personnel within 24 hours.

“The short term prospects for Kaesong are grim as it is currently conceived,” continued Abrahamian. “North Korean companies still face a textile export ban, so even if they’re getting a bargain upgrade in facilities from wherever they were operating before, they still face that hurdle.”

“If that were somehow lifted, South Korea and the U.S. could exert pressure on any Chinese companies outsourcing or trading with Kaesong-based companies, claiming unfair use of the property,” he said. “In the longer term, given the challenges Kaesong has faced, I’d like to see the ROK try something different in its engagement strategies with the DPRK.”

Featured image: Google Earth