Time-lapse videos of between 80 and 100 satellite images taken throughout the year indicate that coal is still moving from two of North Korea’s main export facilities at Nampho and Rason.

The videos, generated by Planet Labs, each include possible quieter periods at the beginning of the year, but show activity apparently ramping up later in 2018.

But less frequent unobscured imagery captured during late 2017 and the early part of 2018 also makes direct comparisons challenging, providing a less clear picture of traffic during the winter months.

The activity at Nampho, the North’s largest port, comes despite UN prohibitions on the import of DPRK coal dating back to August last year.

And while imagery of ships apparently loading coal at the facilities is not direct evidence of sanctions breaches and the photographs provide only a snapshot of vessel traffic, the North’s Nampho port was highlighted by the Panel of Experts (PoE) as the point of origin for numerous illicit coal shipments in 2017.


Prior to international restrictions, coal was the North’s most valuable export, earning the DPRK upwards of USD$1 billion a year.

North Korea would send millions of tonnes of the commodity each month to customers predominantly in China via several facilities around the country, including Nampho and the northeastern port of Rason, which was specifically upgraded for the purpose.

And even though the international community restricted the North’s coal shipments from 2016, loopholes in the sanctions allowed the trade to carry on much as before until the following year.

But Resolution 2371 passed in August 2017 imposed a full ban on the North’s coal exports – in addition to several other raw materials – which effectively closed off the exceptions the North’s buyers were using to continue their purchases.

Since the full ban, North Korea and opportunists in the region have turned to underhanded methods to evade the sanctions, borrowing techniques from their weapon smuggling operations to keep some fraction of the trade alive.

“The Panel investigated more than 30 cases of exports of coal from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to at least four Member States in South-East Asia, including several cases that involved the trans-shipment of coal via Russian Far Eastern ports,” the PoE said in their 2018 report.

“In so doing, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea made use of a combination of multiple evasion techniques, routes and deceptive shipping tactics, including manipulation of the Automatic Identification System, loitering, voyage deviations and fraudulent documentation.”

Images showing Nampho throughout 2017 | Credit: Planet Labs


Satellite images of the Nampho area indicate coal is loaded onto vessels at one of three main bays at a designated terminal towards the eastern end of the larger port complex.

Despite restrictions passed in March the previous year, traffic to the region appeared steady in the first half of 2017, with relatively large bulk carriers frequently docking at one or all of the berths.

The activity appears relatively consistent throughout the summer months, though tails off in later part of August, broadly coinciding with the UN’s passage of a full coal prohibition in that month.

General traffic patterns also seem aligned with less frequent observations from the PoE, who investigated numerous coal shipments originating in Nampho between January and August, though highlighted shipments from the eastern port city of Wonsan in the latter part of the year.

But the quiet spell at Nampho seemed to stretch from the end of August or the beginning of September until October 13, when a multi-bay cargo ship was pictured docked at the facility.

During the vessel’s multi-day visit to the port, coal also appears to be moving on the dock area, likely indicating the cargo ship was loading coal. Other vessels then appear more sporadically at the port in the remaining months of 2017.

The pattern of less frequent visits continued throughout the start of this year, with several sequences of images sometimes showing no activity at all in the region.

Momentum starts to swing back towards more regular vessel appearances in the region around May this year, and although June also appears quiet, the uptick seems consistent from July until some of the most recently available imagery dated November 22.

Yet the renewed traffic at the Nampho facility does not appear to have reached the levels seen in earlier stages of 2017, where images showing ships docked at every available berth were not uncommon.

Throughout periods of traffic, coal spoils can be seen appearing and disappearing on the dock, indicating the regular loading or unloading of the commodity.

Images showing Nampho throughout 2018 | Credit: Planet Labs


Vessel activity in the Rason area seems to be have been broadly similar to that in Nampho over the 23-month period, though with a few additional complications.

Establishing sanctions breaches from the northeastern port using satellite imagery or vessel traffic information is yet more challenging than with Nampho, as the UN exempts the facility from its coal restrictions, providing non-DPRK produced coal is being exported.

The exemption technically allows neighboring Russia to send its own coal to the North Korean port by rail and load it onto ships from there.

Rajin is the northernmost port in the region which does not ice over in winter, ideally allowing Russian traders access to the Sea of Japan the year round.

But Moscow’s ambassador to North Korea Alexander Matsegora in mid-November told Russian media that local companies were not making use of the facility, for fear of violating U.S. sanctions.

Images showing Rason throughout 2017 | Credit: Planet Labs

Matsegora said the Rason Special Economic Zone, “used to [receive] Russian coal, but currently the port is not operational … Russian companies are simply intimidated by American threats.”

Oddly, the ambassador’s statement is in tension with a September report citing another Russian official who claimed that coal trade through Rajin was back on the cards.

According to an article from North Korean Economy Watch in 2014, Russian companies use Rajin’s pier three – the southernmost berth in the Planet Labs imagery – while Chinese interests may have operated the other two, even if the exact legalities of the arrangement remain unclear.

The compilation of Planet Labs’ images from 2017 clearly shows coal moving on both piers two and three, with frequent vessel traffic to both berths in the early part of the year.

But pier one, the northernmost of the three docks, is covered, making it difficult to tell if coal is also being moved from the area, though smaller ships also frequently pulled up alongside it during the same time frame.

Activity once again seems to have dropped off in September 2017, even though ships are visible at pier three on two occasions over the 30-day period, with images also capturing visits to the second pier in the same month.

For the remainder of the year, Planet Labs’ 3m imagery did not appear capture another vessel loading at Rajin’s pier three, even though moving Russian coal from the area would not have breached the UN’s restrictions.

Images showing Rason throughout 2018 | Credit: Planet Labs

The trend continued well into 2018, with little or no vessel movement in the vicinity for the first six months of the year, aside from a limited number of small ships appearing near the second pier.

Despite the lack of traffic, the amount of coal on pier three seems to have fluctuated from April as smaller volumes of coal appear to have been moved onto the dock, before drastically increasing between June 20 and June 22, several months prior to September report which claimed a resumption of trade.

The amount of coal on the pier appears to continue changing until the last image in the sequence, taken on November 11, though remains above the amount seen in the first part of the year.

The fluctuations appear to continue throughout the remainder of 2018, even though no vessels appear at the dock in any of the dozens of intervening images not covered by weather patterns or cloud.

The absence of ships docking at pier three could indicate the area is being used to temporarily store coal, that vessels are loading the commodity at night when no satellites are overhead, or that coal is being moved to one of the other piers before loading.

Increased vessel traffic is visible at the other two piers during the same time period, though as with Nampho, does not reach the levels seen in early 2017.

While it would be unwise to extrapolate claims of sanctions breaches from an incomplete set of images taken over the last two years, the ongoing lower level of activity seen at some of the North’s primary coal export facilities potentially signals that the North’s commodities sector is not wholly static.

Edited by Oliver Hotham

Featured image: Google Earth image of Nampho taken on 5.18.2017