North Korea continues work on upgrading its Nampho oil terminal, recent satellite imagery indicates, while a new oil storage further west of the facility was added in 2018.

The oil loading and storage facility at Nampho on the DPRK’s western coast is one of the country’s primary oil terminals and a likely drop off point for a significant fraction of the country’s inflows of smuggled oil.

According to the UN Panel of Experts’ (PoE) most recent report, the terminal and a nearby underwater pipeline take fuels which North Korea has received via sanctioned ship-to-ship transfers.

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

“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.”

North Korea’s smuggling activities and a nearby underwater pipeline. Image: Panel of Experts

The PoE also noted how “the imagery shows how underwater pipelines attached to offloading buoys are used to transfer fuel from vessels to the terminals in the Nampo port complex,” while also calling the activity in the area “blatant violations” of UN sanctions that could not occur without the knowledge of local port authorities.

The group’s report added that since UN resolutions passed in 2017 there had been a “massive” increase in transfers at sea, which could indicate why North Korea has continued to upgrade and improve the facility despite official restrictions covering petroleum exports to North Korea.

UN Resolution 2397 should limit the DPRK’s refined petroleum inflows to 500,000 barrels a year, though reported shipments from both China and Russia are well below the annual quota.

Previous NK Pro reports have also highlighted how China’s reported shipments have not included fuels like gasoline and diesel since mid-2017, which should obviate the need for additional loading and storage capacity at the facility.

Recorded shipments for 2018 are also just a fraction of those seen in previous years, when the value of Chinese imports to the DPRK was many times higher than it is currently, although falling oil prices will also play a part.

Washington also said that it believes the illicit shipments had breached the 500,000 barrel cap refined oil products in September last year.

“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,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the UN Security Council at the time.

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

But despite the restrictions, images from Planet Labs show yet another narrow piece of landed added to the facility’s eastern-most pier, in addition to existing new land reclamation occurring on the other side of the berth.

The Nampho facility on March 24. Image: Planet Labs

The work is recent as the new strip of land was not visible in Planet’s imagery at the beginning of March, with the construction apparently starting towards the end of last month.

But, high-resolution imagery from Google Earth taken in late February also shows what could be construction starting at the southern end of the pier.

The Nampho terminal with new land added in April. Image: Planet Labs

The Google image indicates that all three piers may be in use, with oil tankers and a general cargo vessel berthed at each, while another seven tankers wait nearby the Nampho facility and the area near the underwater pipeline highlighted by the PoE.

The image also gives a more detailed look at the land reclamation on the eastern side of the pier, with a relatively large area of new land visible added to the area sometime in January, despite the cold temperatures of the DPRK’s winter.

While the purpose of the land reclamation is not yet apparent from the imagery, the new area could potentially serve as grounds for additional storage capabilities in the future.

The construction seems to be a part of a larger upgrade project which began in 2016, which began with the addition of what is now the central pier coupled with an increase in the apparent storage capacity at facility.

An area of land to the north of the terminal has also been cleared, though its function remains unknown.

Land reclamation at the Nampho terminal which took place in January. Image: Google Earth

The high-resolution google image captured in February also shows additional storage added last year at a different facility to the west of Nampho.

According to the North Korea Uncovered Google Earth overlay, the newly added storage is near the Ryongnam Ship Repair Factory and was added between March and April last year.

The area west of the ship repair factory in March 2018. Image: Google Earth

The facility has several dry docks for repairing relatively large vessels, so the expansion could potentially help with local refueling, though it would again seem an unlikely project in times of oil scarcity.

The Google imagery shows a newly added 25-meter radius storage tanker just to the west of ship repair facility, while an existing smaller tanker was also repainted.

The newly added storage tanker in April 2018. Image: Google Earth

Numerous images also show oil tankers docked at the berth adjacent to the newly added storage, indicating they could also be offloading oil products for use by other vessels.

Edited by Oliver Hotham