Time-lapse satellite imagery provided by Planet Labs from the first half of 2019 shows continued and frequent traffic at two North Korean coal terminals on the country’s western side.

The footage comprises of over 70 images gathered from each of the two sites at the DPRK’s Nampho and Songim ports, with Planet Labs often providing multiple images per week.

While satellite imagery alone is not evidence of sanctions breaches and imagery is not captured every day, the frequency of the photographs nonetheless provides a useful window into traffic in the area, given there is little vessel commercial tracking opportunity in and around the DPRK’s waters.

The images also do not show the direction of the trade, though the availability of coal within the DPRK and minimal imports likely signals that most of the country’s coal terminals are export focused.

Nampho 

UN resolutions passed throughout 2016 and 2017 gradually increased the pressure on North Korea’s coal exports, eventually prohibiting them along with a host of other DPRK raw materials, metals, and minerals.

Yet despite the restrictions, North Korea has continued some level of coal trade by transhipping coal through Russia or via transferring coal between vessels at sea, away from the prying eyes of customs authorities and regulators.

Nampho coal terminal’s two berths with multiple cranes on February 23, 2019 | Photo: Google Earth

In their most report, the UN Panel of Experts (PoE) noted how North Korean ports had subsequently become hotbeds for sanctions evasion activity, with vessels offloading illicit oil or onloading coal bound for the North’s complex smuggling routes.

“A Member State provided imagery of certain DPRK ports, in particular Nampho, as hubs for suspected illegal activity,” the PoE wrote in their report published in March.

“In addition to imagery highlighting the consistent use of Nampo port for loading prohibited exports of DPRK coal, 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.”

Nampho has one of the DPRK’s larger coal terminals, a facility roughly in the center of the port complex, with oil deliveries and the country’s expanding container terminal to the west.

The coal port has space for multiple vessels to dock at any one time and some of the DPRK’s largest cargo ships likely make use of the facility.

Previous NK Pro analysis of time-lapse images gathered across 2017 and 2018 showed quiet periods and apparent lulls in vessel traffic through the winter months and immediately after the passage of UN resolution 2397.

But imagery gathered throughout the first half of 2019 shows more regular traffic over the six month period, with multiple visits to the port in January and February.

 

The changing sizes of the ships docked in the area also indicate that the port is seeing turnover, while ships also don’t appear to remain over multiple images.

But North Korea has covered some of the port, making it more difficult to gauge if coal spoils on the dock are changing size which would act as another possible signal that cargo is being moved to and from the port.

Images taken at the end of January and the start of March show two vessels docked at the Nampho coal port, followed by a slight dropoff in activity in March, though picking up again the following month.

Photographs taken on April 13 and April 15 appear to show the same vessel berthed on the eastern side of the coal facility, with open hatches in the first image which are then closed in the latter images, suggesting that some kind of cargo transfer took place.

The ship is then replaced by another slightly smaller vessel in the following image taken two days later, which also appears to have an open cargo hold, highlighting near back to back use of the facility.

Activity continues through April and May while one photograph taken towards the end of June shows three ships of multiple sizes docked at the Nampho coal port concurrently.

Songnim 

North Korea’s Songnim port is located further northwards along the Taedong River between Nampho and Pyongyang.

Like Nampho it has multiple berths and cranes capable of loading coal, while one area of the port is also covered, though some industrial capacity in the region could indicate that some of the coal is being moved to local factories.

Also with Nampho, there appears to be some activity at the port even in January and February, despite much of the river being covered in ice during North Korea’s harshest winter months.

 

Traffic also appears to ramp up as temperatures rise and the area is infrequently without at least one visitor over the six month period.

The vessels visiting Songnim are also occasionally captured with their holds open, again indicating that they are moving cargo through the facility, and ships do not appear to remain berthed for extended periods.

Towards the end of the coverage period in late June, the image taken on June 27 shows four vessels docked at Songnim’s two berths simultaneously.

The Songnim coal terminals with multiple cranes on April 21, 2017 | Photo: Google Earth

Although it would not be recommended to extrapolate sanctions breaches from satellite photography, the apparently constant traffic at two North Korean coal facilities nonetheless stands in contrast to that observed via similar methods immediately following the implementation of UN resolutions.

Taken together with other lines of evidence, the activity at Nampho and Songnim correlates with the PoE’s assessment that Pyongyang’s ship-to-ship smuggling has seen a “massive” increase since the passage of UN Resolution 2397, with North Korea adapting and evolving its methods to maintain some level of commodity trade.

Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham

Featured image: Google Earth