North Korea continues construction work on its Nampho oil terminal, recent satellite imagery from Planet Labs shows, despite the seemingly low levels of DPRK vessel traffic and international restrictions on exporting oil products to the DPRK.

The Nampho oil terminal is the country’s primary facility for refueling vessels and a likely unloading point for inward bound fuel products being delivered to North Korea.

In July, Washington also said the facility was likely the drop-off point for oil products received via sanctioned ship-to-ship transfers, describing four vessels as “delivering refined petrol products” that were procured via sanctioned means to Nampho.

Previous NK Pro reports highlighted how the Nampho facility appeared to be undergoing upgrades, but satellite imagery from Planet Labs shows the work continues despite the theoretically reduced demand the terminal should be experiencing.

“The pier will expand Nampho’s ship handling capacity and potentially allow it to handle a larger volume of finished petroleum products,” Scott LaFoy, a Washington based satellite imagery analyst previously said of the upgrades.

The latest developments observed within the last month indicate that the expansion of one the terminal’s piers continues, while authorities also appear to be raising additional land alongside another of the facility’s berths, which is extending out over a shallow area of water adjacent to the main oil storage facility.

The terminal on September 10. Image: Planet Labs

While it is as yet unclear what the purpose of the land extension is, it is possible that it could be used to hold further oil container facilities like the additional capacity added to the site over the last two years.

The recent construction developments occurred during August, around a month after the U.S. had submitted its assessment that North Korean tankers were unloading illegally obtained oil products at the facility.

Aside from the ongoing physical alterations to and around the facility’s piers, images from August 18 and September 10 show a relatively large number of vessels waiting nearby, with numerous ships moored near terminal or docked directly at one of the berths.

In the August 18 image, no less than eight vessels are seen docked at the three piers with a further 12 vessels appearing to be moored in the immediate vicinity.

On September 10, a similar number are seen docked at the facility with nine vessels also apparently moored just outside it.

Nearby traffic on August 18. Image: Planet Labs

Assuming the images are not capturing the same vessels moored in the area for long periods of time, the relatively large number of ships in the vicinity is seemingly at odds with reported North Korean vessel traffic.

Location data from the North Korean vessels’ Automatic Identification System (AIS) transmitters shows only a handful of DPRK-flagged ships sailing in international waters, while the DPRK’s oil tankers are nearly completely absent from international tracking systems.

But U.S. data provided to the UN showed there were 89 sanctions breaking ship-to-ship transfers between January and May this year, indicating the North’s tankers mainly travel without broadcasting their locations, a breach of maritime laws.

The NK Pro ship tracker shows minimal North Korean vessel traffic in the last month

The additional vessels around Nampho terminal could also be foreign ships, though with no AIS coverage around the DPRK’s largest port, its difficult to accurately gauge traffic to the region.

While the UN’s measures do not call for a complete oil embargo on North Korea, they should cut deliveries by around 90 percent and place reporting requirements on countries exporting oil products to the DPRK.

According to the official trade numbers, only China and Russia are currently shipping refined oil products to the North, though often the reported quantities are so small they could likely be transported in a single trip by one of the DPRK’s coastal tankers.

Previous NK Pro reporting also highlighted how North Korea had expanded its fuel storage capabilities along the border with Russia in recent years, with satellite imagery also indicating that trains capable of transporting oil were operating in the area.

Featured image: Planet Labs