Updated satellite images of North Korea’s main container terminal at Nampho suggest that an apparent lull in cargo volume at the site was short-lived, with newer imagery showing numerous containers at the facility.

A previous image from Planet Labs taken on August 27 showed an apparently empty container terminal, with the number of containers also seemingly trending downward throughout the summer months.

But more recent images taken at the beginning of September shows the decrease in containers in the site may have been only a temporary one, with numerous containers visible in the storage area.

Imagery taken on September 2 shows numerous containers at the facility | Photo: Planet Labs

Imagery from Planet Labs taken at regular intervals shows the number of containers at the Nampho facility began ticking upward again in late August and seemingly recovered by September.

The abrupt uptick appears supported by additional data gathered by the NK Pro ship tracker, which continued to track relatively normal levels of vessel traffic between Nampho and neighboring Dalian, one of the main offloading points for DPRK-bound containers.

Somewhat unusually, the NK Pro ship tracker on Monday even captured a North Korean-vessel docked at the area, even though ships typically do not broadcast their locations when visiting the DPRK.

The North Korean-flagged Tong Myong 9 is one of a few regular DPRK freighters which moves between Dalian and Nampho, though its exact destination in the DPRK is usually unknown.

The contrasting images of the Nampho facility highlight the difficulties in attempting to ascertain larger trade trends from satellite imagery alone, though longer-term analysis may indicate a busier facility in previous years.

A North Korean ship at the terminal on the same day  | Photo: NK Pro ship tracker

Planet Labs imagery taken in 2016, prior to the addition of broader trade sanctions the following year, seem to show more containers visible at the storage area overall, than in more recent years.

UN sanctions restrict or prohibit member states from trading in numerous commodities with the DPRK, with different restrictions affecting both imports from and exports to the DPRK.

But many of the most critical sanctions affect North Korean raw materials like coal and iron, which would not be loaded at the Nampho container terminal.

Vessels at Nampho’s coal loading facility on September 2 | Photo: Planet Labs

DPRK coal is likely exported from the nearby coal offloading facility, located just a short distance westward from the container area and previous NK Pro analysis has highlighted that it remains well-attended, despite the UN’s restrictions.

The most recent imagery taken by Planet Labs’ passing satellites shows large vessels docked at the facility, potentially with open cargo holds indicating that some form of loading was ongoing.

Although the North could be using vessels to move coal around the Korean peninsula, it remains possible that the pictured ships are headed out to open waters to offload the coal to other ships, in breach of UN resolutions.

Edited by Oliver Hotham

Featured image: DPRK Today