Satellite imagery from Google Earth and Planet Labs in October reveal ongoing construction and tanker traffic at a facility identified by U.S. intelligence as a likely key drop off point for illicitly obtained oil.

The Nampho oil terminal is the North’s primary above ground storage facility, where the DPRK’s tankers used to offload imported oil products and which also acted as a common refueling point for outward bound cargo ships.

North Korea has been continuing to upgrade the facility in recent years despite sanctions targeting oil transfers to the DPRK. Previous analysis by NK Pro showed land reclamation activities occurring on the east side of the facility’s third pier.

Planet Labs imagery taken throughout October shows that this work advancing at a rapid pace and reveals that North Korea has extended the project significantly towards the top of the quay.

Google Earth imagery of the pier, taken on October 8 and updated recently, indicates that additional construction and upgrades are also taking place.

The pier itself appears to have undergone significant paving work since March, the last time Google Earth updated imagery at the site.

An octagonal structure resembling a watch tower or pill box has been erected as well, while further foundations for the piers expansion lay around the end of the quay.

Planet Labs imagery taken on October 31 indicates that concrete may have since been poured into these foundations, expanding the width and potential docking capacity of the facility.

October 3, 2018 and October 31, 2018 | Planet Labs

Further inland, Google Earth imagery reveals that additional buildings appear to have been partially constructed since March and an existing building has been properly roofed. This speaks to the overall upkeep at the site, which shows signs of new paving and roadwork.

A total of three oil tankers are present at the middle pier, which is indicative of ongoing and steady traffic at the site revealed by Planet Labs imagery throughout the month of October, while other tankers appear to be waiting in the waters surrounding the oil terminal.

In contrast, Planet Labs imagery in September shows that while there are always ships docked at and located near the site, three vessels possibly remained stationary throughout the month.

Nor are the upgrades at the Nampho terminal the only new facilities in the area, with older commercially available satellite imagery showing two relatively new oil storage tankers further to the west of the North Korean port city.

The changes and additions come even as North Korea’s reported oil imports are at their lowest levels in years, while the DPRK’s fleet of small tankers has all but disappeared from international vessel tracking systems.

Current UN restrictions place reporting requirements on countries exporting fuels to the DPRK, though Russia and China’s claimed exports are just a fraction of previous levels.

While oil shipments to North Korea are not completely embargoed, UN Resolution 2379 also places a yearly cap on the shipments.

Previous NK Pro analysis highlighted how the numbers were well below what a country with 25 million people would likely use over a 30-day period.

Yet the headline addition of a new pier at the facility would increase the North’s oil loading and offloading capabilities in the area.

The satellite imagery indicates the newest pier may be in use, with a cargo ship apparently pulling up alongside the new docking area.

Google Earth October 8, 2018 | NK Pro

But the reported numbers are unlikely to represent a complete picture of the DPRK’s oil and fuel supplies, as North Korea has likely turned to more underhanded methods to procure its oil.

The U.S. previously released information claiming that it had observed 89 cargo transfers between vessels at sea, showing how North Korean vessels were receiving oil deliveries without entering ports.

Such ship-to-ship transfers are also prohibited by UN resolutions, though new designations passed in October indicate the practice is ongoing.

The transfers at sea make it very challenging to gauge the North’s fuel deliveries via open source methods, but indirect evidence like the ongoing construction at Nampho and stable fuel prices in Pyongyang do not seem to dovetail with supply-side shocks and shortages.

Both U.S. President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo previously called for the transfers to stop during the UN General Assembly in September, with the U.S. claiming that the yearly quota set out in Resolution 2397 for North Korean oil deliveries had already been exceeded.

“The United States has assessed and can say in no uncertain terms say that the cap of 500,000 barrels has been breached this year,” Pompeo told the UN Security Council in September.

“We continue to see illegal imports of additional refined petroleum, using ship-to-ship transfers, which are clearly prohibited under the UN resolution.”

The UK, Japan and France shared Washington’s assessment though Moscow and Beijing publicly disagreed.

But the ongoing construction at North Korea’s largest above-ground oil storage facility is a further indicator that the DPRK’s current oil supply picture is not as bleak as the official numbers provided to the UN by Beijing and Moscow make out.

Featured Image: Google Earth