Analysis of oil tanker numbers at North Korea’s Nampho oil terminal compiled from over two and half years of satellite imagery shows continued and sustained activity at the site, despite strict UN sanctions restricting oil flows passed at the end of 2017.

The collection of over 300 images, taken at regular intervals between January 2017 and July 2019 by Planet Labs satellites, overall show an expanding oil loading facility growing to meet continual activity.

On average, the number of tankers docked or visible in the area was generally higher at the end of the observation period, though this metric alone may be a shaky foundation from which to draw conclusions about the DPRK’s oil inflows.

Nampho

The DPRK’s Nampho oil facility, just in-river from the country’s western coast, is one of North Korea’s primary oil offloading areas, currently home to three piers, numerous above ground oil storage tanks and the recipient of a long-running and large scale upgrade program.

According to the UN Panel of Experts’ (PoE) most recent report, the Nampho facility has also become a favored drop-off point for oil imported via illicit methods.

UN Resolution 2397 limits member states from exporting more than 500,000 barrels of refined petroleum to the DPRK per year, though Pyongyang has turned to transferring oil directly between tankers at sea to circumvent the restrictions.

Much of this oil is likely delivered to Nampho, where it is then offloaded at one of the facility’s piers or at a nearby area connected by underwater pipelines.

“A Member State provided imagery demonstrating the widespread use of the Marine Import Terminal at Nampo by tankers documented as engaged in illegal ship-to-ship transfers,” the PoE wrote in their most recent report.

“The imagery shows how underwater pipelines attached to offloading buoys are used to transfer fuel from vessels to the terminals in the Nampo port complex.”

Activity at the terminal

The sample of Planet Labs imagery examined by NK Pro counted tankers docked at Nampho piers and the nearby area home to the underwater pipeline.

Tanker counting areas | Photo: Planet Labs

Tankers or other vessels waiting nearby were not included in the analysis as it is difficult to ascertain their eventual destinations only from satellites passing overhead.

The number of images provided by Planet Labs “Stories” functionality was also relatively consistent, though the frequency of photographs was slightly higher in the last two years than in 2017, allowing for the usual winter or summer months when cloud cover more often obscured the satellites’ view.

While Planet does not capture new images every day, NK Pro counted tankers in over 100 images taken in 2017, 120 last year and over 70 for the first six months of 2019, likely providing a reasonable snapshot of activity in the area.

 

Overall, the number of tankers visible at the Nampho facility was highest in 2018 and the beginning of 2019, appearing to taper off slightly towards the midpoint of this year.

While the general trend is upward across the two and half year period, the number of tankers docked at the Nampho area increased relatively suddenly around the start of 2018.

This increase around the start of 2018 could be due to several not mutually exclusive reasons. The Nampho facility, for example, had undergone its first peer expansion that year and appeared capable of handling more traffic.

The timing also appears to coincide with the passage of UN Resolution 2397, which came in the closing stages of December 2017 with member states likely implementing the new restrictions in their national legislations not long after.

But the larger number of tankers also possibly highlights a potential weakness implicit in simply counting vessels, a methodology which does not take into account that the same tankers may persist from image to image.

Closer examination of the images indicates that some of the DPRK’s may have been benched following the passage of Resolution 2397, so their presence at the Nampho facility would not be indicative of increased activity or oil supply.

One particular group of four vessels appears at Nampho’s then newly created middle pier in March 2018 and appears to remain in the area until May, when the largest of the four disappears from the images for the first time.

Possible stationary tankers in Nampho on March 14 | Photo: Planet Labs

The possibility also exists that one or all of the pictured vessels are not oil tankers and are simply ships laid up at Nampho, in which case they would constitute a long-running false-positive throughout the early part of the 2018 data.

But ship traffic of any kind likely provides a tangential insight into activity, as vessels also could not refuel in the area if nearby storage tanks were empty.

An overall decrease in tanker activity may also dovetail with findings from the PoE’s latest report, which noted how just six North Korean tankers were responsible for around 50 percent of illicit ship-to-ship transfers during a 66-day observation period in 2018.

In an advisory published by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) in March this year, Washington provided a list of 27 DPRK oil tankers “capable of engaging in ship-to-ship transfers of petroleum,” indicating that not all are in use at all times.

Longer periods showing static vessels may then signal that one of the effects of Resolution 2397 was to put a proportion of the DPRK’s tanker fleet out of action, with higher numbers visible at Nampho conversely signifying less activity.

 

Looking instead at changes in the number of tankers at the Nampho oil facility shows a picture with limited clear trend though more or less constant fluctuations, with periods of no activity across all piers and the nearby underwater pipeline area rarely lasting more than several days.

Closer analysis indicates that there are more consistent changes in the number of tankers in 2019 than 2017 by a small margin, though also interspersed with short periods when the number of visible changes in the area is zero.

Positive changes in the chart above indicate vessels arriving, while negative changes show ships leaving the area, with frequent oscillations in both directions possible from image to image.

The frequency of changes does more to highlight traffic in the area than simple counting, indicating frequent arrivals and departures throughout the two and a half year period.

Notably, there was no noticeable downturn in the frequency of changes following the passage of Resolution 2397, with North Korea potentially rapidly adjusting to the sanctions regime with the smuggling methods it had already begun using during the latter half of 2017.

The 2019 set of images also clearly shows the more recent upgrades to the Nampho area, with additional land reclamation on the facility’s eastern side, resulting in a remarkably different facility by July 2019 than at the start of 2017.

 

The upgraded Nampho facility likely has a higher capacity to load or offload fuels, a curious addition in what should be a time of relative scarcity.

The finding of constant activity is at also odds with what should be expected, given the sharp limit in the quantity of refined oil North Korea can import, and highlights the DPRK’s resistance to the sanctions regime.

Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham

Featured image: DPRK Tourism