A recent satellite image from Planet Labs of North Korea’s main container terminal at Nampho shows what appears to be a nearly empty dock, the first time an image taken in 2019 captured an apparent lack of containers at the facility.

The satellite photograph taken on Monday shows potentially just a handful of containers on the eastern side of the storage area, with no vessels the facility, while the upgraded set of loading cranes are also apparently idle.

Satellite imagery from August 26 showing an apparently empty terminal | Image: Planet Labs

Time-lapse imagery from the start of 2019 shows a container storage area that’s typically far from at full capacity, though with activity at the site seeming to trend downwards throughout July and August.

The set of over 80 images taken from the start of the year indicates the container port was busier in January and February than in the summer.

Monday’s image contrasts with the last higher resolution image available on Google Earth, which shows several rows of containers towards the southern end of the terminal’s storage area.

But it’s difficult to infer larger trends from container numbers viewed by satellite alone, with imagery from August last year also showing limited numbers of containers at the Nampho terminal.

Higher resolution imagery of the terminal in February shows containers on the southern end of the dock | Image: Google Earth

The apparent lack of containers could then be part of a seasonal low or a lull in shipping volume and may not be indicative of trading difficulties or the effects of UN sanctions.

The NK Pro ship tracker is also recording an apparently regular amount of traffic between Nampho and Dalian, with several North Korean ships moving between the two ports over the last seven days, though it’s unclear from tracking data if they are carrying containers or other types of cargo.

North Korean vessels moving between Dalian and Nampho over the last seven days | Image: NK Pro ship tracker

Nonetheless, images taken in 2016, prior to the addition of broader trade sanctions the following year, show an apparently busier facility, with containers visible over the whole storage area.

Higher resolution imagery taken in March also shows more of the container storage terminal apparently in use, though 2019’s images from the same month also indicate larger numbers of containers than in August.

The Nampho container storage in 2016 | Image: Planet Labs

North Korea also expanded the size of the container area in 2016, adding new storage space in the north-east of the facility between February and August of that year.

The construction appears to be part of a larger upgrade program at the Nampho port area in general, with previous NK Pro articles highlighting the addition of fuel storage facilities, oil offloading piers, new cranes, and a new coal storage area just to the north of the container terminal.

But the apparent lull in activity contrasts with vessel traffic at the nearby coal and oil terminals, with time-lapse imagery showing relatively constant visits to the facilities, despite the sanctioned status of the products moving through them.

Edited by James Fretwell

Feature image: Planet Labs