In October, as North Korea scrambled to mitigate the worst effects of the severe flooding caused by Typhoon Lionrock in late August and early September, satellite imagery analysis by NK News assessed construction and recovery efforts in the Northeastern provinces of the country.

The country had tentatively aimed to complete new housing construction activities prior to the end of October and in the lead up to Winter, when temperatures drop well below zero degrees celsius. 

Regular lower resolution satellite imagery provided by Planet Labs showed extensive large scale construction in several key areas hit by the disaster: in key locations including Hoeryong City, Musan City, Pakchon-ri, Namyang, Sambong, and Yonsa County.

Construction of new housing has been cited by international organizations with a presence in the country as a major priority for North Korean authorities.

Resources and personnel slated for other projects during the country’s 200-day campaign were also reported to have been re-routed to North Hamgyong province in order to complete the massive undertaking. So with Winter underway, how have major construction projects fared?

In mid-November, North Korean authorities reported that displaced populations had begun to move into new homes and apartments following the completion of its construction drive in these locations.

Further analysis of satellite imagery over November and December reveals steady progress on key larger scale construction projects is continuing or completed.

As construction progressed, new larger and occasionally smaller housing and construction projects were made easily visible by different roofing and paint, which help them stick out among the pre-existing buildings.

While unable to judge the suitability of the accommodation, this does provide a useful barometer for completed construction developments, albeit with analytical caution applied.

CONSTRUCTION FROM ABOVE: WHAT THE SATELLITES SHOW

Three kilometers in land from Hoeryong City, construction on over 50 multiple apartment buildings continued to develop from late October.

While not present in imagery from October 20, paint and roofing is shown as almost complete in imagery dated October 27. Imagery in November shows little improvement to the structures, despite this site being one that was heavily prioritized by the leadership due to its sheer scale. 

State media publications also regularly reported on developments in Hoeryong City and published images of the ongoing construction and completion of buildings at this site.

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Hoeryong City construction December 17 | Image credit: Planet Labs

Snow covered the area throughout November and much of December, but work on a large three-sided building with blue roofing continued to be visible in imagery around mid-November.

This occurred around the same time authorities began claiming that residents were beginning to move into their newly constructed homes.

The buildings do, however, appear fully complete in December 17 imagery as does the wider site, which is now void of what appears to have been temporary structures, installations or materials close by.

Similarly, large scale apartment buildings – similar to those seen in Hoeryong – have been completed in the center of Musan in locations previously covered with grass and possibly used for farming.

Roofing and paint is seen in imagery dated October 27 as being largely completed and fully completed in November 6 imagery prior to snowfall, which is again seen throughout November and December.

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Musan County November 28 | Image credit: Planet Labs

About 7.5 kilometers to the East of central Musan, several buildings have been constructed, including eight large multi-story apartments, similar to those seen in Hoeryong City and Musan, above.

While further inland, these structures are located in areas that were previously damaged by flooding.

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Musan County, down river November 28 | Image credit: Planet Labs

Close to four kilometers to the west of central Musan along the Tumen river, around 120 smaller houses appear to be completed in imagery dated November 11, prior to snowfall. Earlier imagery shows roofing and paint largely applied on October 26 and 27.

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South West of Musan County November 11 | Image credit: Planet Labs

In Namyang roofing and paint present on buildings in imagery dated throughout November and December clearly reveals that far more buildings were under construction than previously apparent in October’s analysis.

In total, around 50 larger, multi-story buildings have been completed in a 500 by 200-meter section area that was likely leveled by North Korean authorities post flooding, due to extreme damage caused by the flooding.

This was apparent considering imagery from early September showed many damaged buildings in this section still present in one form or another, while subsequent imagery revealed their removal.

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Namyang December 17 | Image credit: Planet Labs

In Yonsa county, work on 12 multi-story buildings located along the banks of the river has been completed, with roofing and blue paint present as of October 29.

But the larger apartment buildings previously assessed to be replacing the over 250 buildings destroyed do not appear to have been completed, at least superficially, on November 3.

Further inland locations reviewed via satellite also show significant damage to housing, with relatively limited and small scale recovery efforts. In Minbong-ri, east of Pakchon-ri, damage can clearly be seen to multiple clusters of houses.

The river winds through several valleys, splintering off various routes to the South and East. Along these rivers and streams, small collections of new red, green and blue roofed houses can be seen.

None are particularly large in scale and are located extremely close to the river bed, which destroyed or damaged pre-existing housing.

Despite what appears to be significant damage over a wide area in these locations, North Korean state media only mentioned Minbong-ri once in its coverage of post-flooding recovery efforts.

Many of the larger scale developments can be seen from satellite imagery and appear consistent with state media reports on construction developments.

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Yonsa November 20 | Image credit: Planet Labs

Smaller clusters of new houses also appear along a 10 km stretch of river from Yonsa to the South, which ends at a damn. Satellite imagery from the immediate post-flood period suggests the banks of this body of water rose and swelled during the disaster.

Apart from these key locations above, North Korean authorities also cited Kyongwon County as a region heavily hit by Typhoon Lionrock.

Although less densely populated than other centers previously assessed, significant smaller housing developments are apparent.

While some of the other larger construction projects do not seem to have been completed within the intended time period, the concentrated clusters of houses in October 26 imagery near Kyongwon County appear complete. In total, over 250 houses and buildings appear entirely complete prior to November.

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Kyongwon County Construction October 26 | Image credit: Planet Labs

THE VIEW FROM THE GROUND

While viewing satellite imagery does provide those outside North Korea with the ability to track larger construction developments and progress, it cannot shed light on the suitability and state of the housing inside. 

The International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC)  and the UN in-country team, however, had limited access to housing on the ground in November within Hoeryong City, Musan County and Yonsa County.

The IFRC shared its findings with NK News in November, while the UN team issued a Joint Review Mission report on Tuesday.

Speaking to NK News, the IFRC confirmed that its staff were able to observe people moving into housing in November. It was however, unable to verify the number of individuals able to do so out of those who were displaced.

The UN team also observed people moving into new homes and its report indicates that this took place on November 20, which coincided with its visit to the region.

The report also said that most of the planned hospitals, clinics, schools, kindergartens and nurseries were completed at the time of their visit, with the rest expected to be completed by the end of November.

The UN report provided further numbers on reconstruction, which were given to them by North Korean authorities and are consistent with figures issued in state media reports praising reconstruction efforts.

However, despite North Korean reports of a successful recovery, the European Union announced Tuesday that it would be sending further aid to the region, which includes “tents” and “shelter kits”.

The construction figures provided details on the completion of 3,187 new buildings and homes for 11,928 families, with a further 17,698 households repaired. 

Despite these significant numbers of new buildings and households created, the teams were only permitted access to a limited number across the heavily hit locations.

The UN team, for instance, were only able to visit, “five households in newly built apartments in two-family homes as well as on different floors of apartment buildings.”

The IFRC did not provide corresponding numbers at the time but during a later visit by IFRC President Tadateru Konoé in December, multiple dwellings were accessed.

Both organizations provide positive assessments of the limited numbers of apartments and housing seen while visiting.

“As part of our activities, our staff and volunteers have visited families in their new homes and observed that the houses and apartments are dry and warm,” the IFRC told NK News.

“Households visited were all completely finished and were well heated at the time of the visit. Each had received a month’s worth of heating fuel, which the Government stated will continue throughout the winter,” the UN report read in a similar assessment.

The UN report also identified the types of fuels issued, with North Korean authorities providing citizens in Musan with coal- based heating fuel, while the majority of people in other locations had been given only firewood instead.

The supply of adequate electricity to newly built dwellings was described by the IFRC as “unclear”.

The IFRC, however, said that “the traditional Korean system of cooking combined with underfloor heating is a feature in many of the new homes visited and has kept people warm during the winter for generations.”

Perhaps alarmingly, the UN team observed that the houses they visited had no roofing insulation but only “partially glazed windows”.

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State media photos within finished apartment. Flooring appears incomplete, poorly installed | Image Credit: DPRK Today

Further features and utilities within dwellings were also assessed by the two organizations with mixed results.

“Newly built houses and apartments visited were observed to have proper water flush toilets with drainage systems which meet the sustainable development goals (SDG) standards,” the UN report detailed.

However, these features may have been limited to what the UN was allowed to see, with the IFRC providing a different assessment on water supply.

“Our colleagues in the field report that many houses/apartments do not have piped water, reflecting the reality that the rehabilitation of water supply systems takes a significant investment of money and material resources as well as time to complete,” the IFRC said.

Separate to this, the UN team observed that “latrines in the rest of the community remain unimproved open pit types which can be regarded as virtual open defecation and pose a threat to public health.”

This highlights an ongoing concern regarding sanitation and waterborne diseases already experienced by those caught in the flooding. Overall the two organizations did conclude that the housing provided represents a substantial improvement.

“New buildings appeared to be of much higher standard with regard to construction quality, design of HH (efficient kitchen, indoor toilets), windows (glass, double glass), chimneys in the center of the house, pipes not in outdoor walls (apartment blocks),” the UN report read.

The IFRC told NK News that the houses are a “vast improvement on the temporary shelter arrangements that many people displaced by the floods were relying on just a few weeks ago.”

This housing consisted of “plastic sheeting or ‘make do’ timber structures constructed from recycled materials in the ruins of their former homes.”

“Most of (the) new settlements have been built in safe areas (terraced slopes, higher grounds) or will be protected by additional dams,” the UN report also said, which is consistent with some of the findings assessed by NK News previously.

This includes in locations such as Musan, Hoeryong City and Sambang, however others settlements were built in the path of rivers and streams.

But these positive assessments do not account for all of the new accommodation constructed and other outlets have reported deficiencies.

For instance, The Daily NK published a report in late November, around the same time that the IFRC and UN were able to tour the region.

“While the homes appear attractive from the outside, residents have noted that the drywall (sic) is still wet and the interiors of the homes are completely empty,” the report said.

While the reports, originating from anonymous sources, were unable to be confirmed by NK News, images of the inside the buildings do indicate that some may be incomplete.

Inside an apartment in Musan. Walls unfinished, evidence of damp | Image Credit IFRC

In imagery taken by the IFRC in December, walls inside apartments the team were permitted to visit by authorities show signs of damp and incomplete walling. Even state media issued photos show some deficiencies in flooring laid in the houses.

What remains certain is that the damage caused by the floods in late August and early September was substantial, as was the undertaking to construct adequate housing prior to winter.

It may not be until after winter – if at all – when housing can be adequately assessed once more.

This is also true of other key response and recovery efforts such as health and medical tasks associated with the flood recovery, outside of housing and construction.

“As winter takes hold in North Hamgyong many tasks associated with the recovery from this disaster will have to wait until Spring – perhaps as late as the end of March or early April next year in these northern areas of North Hamgyong province,” the IFRC told NK News.

Featured Image: Musan in winter, Planet Labs