In late August and early September, Typhoon Lionrock caused heavy flooding in North Korea’s North Hamgyong province, resulting in significant damage to housing and infrastructure as well as population displacement.

As of October 6, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) substantially amended initial estimates and stated that 30,000 homes suffered severe damage with as many as 62 percent (18,600) destroyed. Reports indicate that as well as the flooding of river systems, landslides also caused significant damage.

Some of the worst affected locations, according to the UN and North Korean state media, include population centers such as Hoeryong City, Yonsa, and Musan.

Since the flooding occurred, North Korean media has regularly reported on, and highlighted, efforts to rebuild housing and public buildings.

Regular satellite imagery from Planet Labs indicates that steady progress has been made in some of the key areas damaged and, while unable to clearly show the state of repair and recovery of some of the smaller buildings, substantial new larger construction projects are clearly visible.

Kim Jong Un has set a broad recovery completion target date for the end of October due to the onset of winter.

But images from within the country depicting large buildings still under development show that there is still much to be done if the tens of thousands estimated by the UN to be displaced are to have adequate shelter in time.

The DPRK and organizations aiding in the recovery have entered a critical time – average temperatures in Musan and Yonsa dip below zero degrees Celsius in late October, according to in-country relief teams.


Hoeryong City is one of the more densely populated cities lying along the Sino-North Korean border and the Tumen river.

Recovery efforts in Hoeryong have been publicized regularly in state media, with the city receiving Premier Pak Pong Ju in October for site guidance. 

A comparison of imagery taken of Hoeryong City before and after the flooding shows substantial damage to a large number of houses and buildings, which lay closest to the river.

Approximately 250 buildings lay spread across a concentrated block stretching for about 950 meters along the Tumen river and at its deepest point stretching inland about 560 meters. The closest building within that concentrated area was only 120 meters from the river bank, which broke due to the heavy rainfall.


Hoeryong City, Before Flooding – August 8, 2016 | Image credit: Planet Labs


Hoeryong City, After Flooding – October 20, 2016 | Image credit: Planet Labs

Satellite imagery taken in October shows the vast majority of the buildings in the area to have been badly damaged or completely destroyed, but there has been little to no progress on reconstruction.

Three kilometers inland, however, near the area of Obong-ri, there is evidence of substantial construction occurring. Over 50 large possible apartment buildings have been partially erected in a location that, prior to the floods, was being used for farming. The expansive site stretches just under one kilometer wide and shadows present in the imagery suggest the new buildings are likely multi-storey buildings.


Hoeryong City construction Before and After flooding | Image credit: Planet Labs

The construction of larger apartment buildings in place of smaller housing would be consistent with state media images and reports of the building of multi-storey accommodation in the area.

Also consistent with state media reporting is the broad time frame provided for construction, the foundations of which, imagery suggests, began in mid-late September.

An interesting aspect of the construction of the larger buildings is that they are placed inland, far away from previously damaged sites along the Tumen River.

This possibly indicates efforts by North Korean authorities to ensure the longevity of the new construction in the face of future flooding. These events are not a rare occurrence in the DPRK, despite the significant scale of damage following Typhoon Lionrock.

This is just one of numerous examples of this strategy being employed in other towns located immediately along the river separating the DPRK and China.

In the town of Musan, significant damage to outlying structures closest to the river, including those on the cusp of the Tumen and larger buildings along the river in the northeastern parts of the city, immediately opposite the Musan mine, is visible.


Musan, Before Flooding – August 26, 2016 | Image credit: Planet Labs


Musan, Construction After Flooding – October 24, 2016 | Image credit: Planet Labs

While not as far inland as construction sites near Hoeryong City, over 20 similarly large possible apartment buildings have sprung up within the city itself.

These buildings lie in place of grassy areas or agricultural land that imagery indicates was not affected by the flooding and therefore may possibly provide a greater level of protection from river swelling in future.

As with the construction site in Hoeryong City, the foundations for these buildings are only present in satellite imagery dated mid-to-late September. Once again, shadows cast by the buildings indicate they are likely of a significant height compared to existing buildings in the area before the flooding.

The small town of Sambong, which also lies along the Tumen, has not been mentioned among the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reporting of flood recovery efforts. It received little apparent damage save for some buildings closest to the river.

But in the little construction that occurred post flooding, authorities appear to have again placed new structures further away from the water line. 10 new structures are now present behind the town, foundations for which first appeared on September 17.


Sambong, Before and After flooding | Image credit: Planet Labs

Opposite the city of Tumen in China, which seems largely untouched from the flooding, the town of Namyang sustained significant damage to structures closest to the river bed.

Little reporting has been done by state media on Namyang apart from an article by KCNA, which highlighted the post-flooding repairs made to the train line, which runs through it.

Imagery from in early September, however, shows that the waters likely extended close to 500 meters inland and significantly damaged over 100 buildings of various sizes, including multi-storey buildings, within an approximate 500 by 200-meter section of Namyang.

While the imagery also shows that many of the buildings in one form or another are still present in unknown states of structural integrity, subsequent imagery reveals that North Korean authorities likely decided to level the area up to a street which bisects the town itself.

Unlike in other examples above, North Korean authorities also decided to construct new buildings in the immediate area previously damaged by the flooding. Again, however, they elected to construct much larger multi-storey buildings in place of the variety of other smaller buildings previously present. As of October 19, there appears to be at least 20 of these larger buildings.


Namyang, Before and After flooding, Construction | Image credit: Planet Labs


While the swelling of the Tumen River and subsequent flood damage has hit towns within its immediate vicinity hard, further inland various population centers were also badly damaged by the weather events in late August and early September.

One of the towns reported to have been badly hit by the events is Yonsa, built along a river that runs off the Tumen some 30 odd kilometers north.

Significant river swelling and subsequent damage is present in imagery and some reports indicated that as many as 700 homes were affected. While with lower resolution imagery it is difficult to tell the level of destruction on the ground, it is fair to estimate that the sheer scale of the complete disappearance of nearly 600 buildings.

At the immediate point where the river joins Yonsa, significant damage to over 250 houses and buildings is evident.

In their place, in imagery dated October 24, there appears to be progress on substantially bigger possible apartment buildings, but they are located in the same position where the river joins the town and where the extensive damage has been caused. 


Yonsa, Before Flooding – August 28, 2016 | Image credit: Planet Labs


Yonsa, After Flooding – October 24, 2016 | Image credit: Planet Labs

As recent as September 29 there is evidence from satellite imagery that the foundations of 12 even larger apartment blocks are being constructed along the river bank.

These possible apartment blocks replace a dense collection of over 100 houses and buildings that were also seemingly destroyed.

In imagery dated October 15, roofing appears to be present, meaning substantial progress had been made at the site in less than a month. A nearby sporting field has been destroyed and, as yet, there have been no efforts to rebuild the complex.

On the ground reporting from NBC’s Bill Neely indicated that a priority for Yonsa’s reconstruction was to build three-story apartment blocks. Shadows cast by the buildings present in the imagery indicate they are substantially higher than previous housing along the river.

Even further south there appears to be significant building losses and October 15 imagery shows a large construction site in an area previously used for farming land. In this general area around 300 buildings alone appear to have been wiped out.

Images of significant inland river swell is also evident near Pakchon-ri and Sangchang-ri, which both lie around 20 kilometers to the south of Musan.


Pakchon-ri/Sangchang-ri, Before and After flooding | Image credit: Planet Labs

While populations centers in the area are few and far between, authorities responded quickly. This includes approximately 60 new buildings, some of which seem to be either completed or in the advanced stages of completion with roofing present as well as new paint.


Sangchang-ri, Before Flooding – August 17, 2016 | Image credit: Planet Labs


Sangchang-ri, After Flooding – October 24, 2016 | Image credit: Planet Labs

Additional reporting by JH Ahn and Scott LaFoy