NASA’s satellite images of the Korean peninsula at night are a well known and graphic visualization of the huge gap in economic development between North and South Korea.
But it turns out, there are other lessons that can be learned from nighttime pictures of North Korea. An economist at Stanford University has studied almost two decades of satellite pictures of the country to conclude the government in Pyongyang is shifting economic activity to industrial centers, reducing the effect of sanctions on city dwellers while increasing their impact on those in the countryside.
Lee Yong Suk analysed nighttime images taken by the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, a U.S. Department of Defense program from which images of the world at night are made available.
A visit by Kim Jong Un to inspect KPA Air Force Unit 1016 has provided a closer look at a new solar power plant built alongside an existing wind power plant.
KCNA carried a handful of images of the visited, but more were broadcast by Korean Central TV during its evening news program. Here’s one of the KCNA images.
Four remaining members of the Japanese Red Army Faction terrorist group living on the outskirts of Pyongyang might not be enjoying as free a lifestyle as recently portrayed.
The four are the last members of a group of nine who hijacked JAL351, a Boeing 727, on March 31, 1970, and eventually took the aircraft to Pyongyang. They have been living in the so-called “Japanese village” since then.
Earlier in May, Japan’s Kyodo News published photographs of the village taken by journalist Reinin Shiino, who visited the area on the banks of the Taedong river in late April, according to the news agency.
One of the photographs shows group member Moriaki Wakabayashi accessing a computer. Another image shows three satellite dishes in the garden near one of the houses.
NASA’s Aqua satellite has captured a stunning image showing a number of large fires burning across North Korea earlier this week.
The image, taken by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on the Aqua satellite, clearly shows large plumes of smoke from the fires, which are concentrated across the east and central parts of the DPRK. Also visible are the fires themselves, which are highlighted in red after being detected with the satellite’s thermal imager. More >
Most people who read this blog will be familiar with the image of the two Koreas at nighttime by a NASA satellite
On January 30, 2014, an astronaut on the International Space Station used a Nikon D3S camera to capture a new image of the Korean peninsula at 10:16 pm — one that’s even more dramatic than the monochrome NASA satellite image of old.
As NASA says, “The darkened land appears as if it were a patch of water joining the Yellow Sea to the Sea of Japan. Its capital city, Pyongyang, appears like a small island, despite a population of 3.26 million (as of 2008). The light emission from Pyongyang is equivalent to the smaller towns in South Korea.”
“Coastlines are often very apparent in night imagery, as shown by South Korea’s eastern shoreline. But the coast of North Korea is difficult to detect. These differences are illustrated in per capita power consumption in the two countries, with South Korea at 10,162 kilowatt hours and North Korea at 739 kilowatt hours.” More >
Driving up South Korea’s “freedom highway” north of Seoul, just after the turn off for the National Defense University, observant travelers will notice a collection of transmitter masts off to the right of the highway.
At first glance, the site looks like it might belong to a major broadcaster like KBS, but the truth appears to be much more interesting.
Seeing inside the site is impossible from the highway, but a neighboring hill provides a good outlook, as shown below.
The site contains 16 transmitter masts, all but one of which are contained in a large field. A single mast sits in the middle of neighboring greenhouses.
On the north side of the facility (the left side of this picture) are a series of buildings. These almost certainly house the transmitters that produce the signals that are piped to the masts.
As can be seen in the above picture, the site is surrounded by a high fence topped with barbed wire. There’s also a guard post at the edge of the facility where the road enters. The road itself contains barriers placed to slow approaching traffic and notices to motorists.
The fences, guard posts and road blocks all point to the facility being somewhat sensitive. The main KBS shortwave transmitter site at Gimjae in the south of the country doesn’t have the same level of security. Neither does an MBC transmission facility a little further north along the highway.
The sensitivity of the site is confirmed with a check of satellite pictures of the field.
Here’s how it looks on Google Maps:
The transmitter masts and buildings can be easily seen.
And here’s the same field on Daum Maps:
The image on Daum, a South Korean portal, has been altered so that none of the transmitter masts or buildings appear. It hasn’t been done perfectly — a few of the shadows cast by the masts can be seen — but it’s a pretty effective effort at removing any details of the facility.
South Korea routinely edits satellite pictures of military installations just as it restricts digital maps of areas near the border, so this is pretty close to confirmation that the radio facility is a sensitive government facility.
But what is it used for?
For the answer to that, a radio provides a clue.
Among the roughly dozen shortwave radio stations that broadcast to North Korea, there are two that don’t have websites, they don’t have listings and can’t be found in official literature.
“Voice of the People” and “Echo of Hope” have been on the air for years, broadcasting an anti-regime program that goes further than other stations in attacking the North Korean government and leadership.
Both stations have long been assumed to be run by the National Intelligence Service and are heavily jammed by North Korea.
The North Korean jamming, which involves broadcasting a very powerful noise signal on the same frequency, makes the South Korean stations difficult to receive. It’s is so powerful that it even overrides their signal on radios in Seoul, across the sea in Japan and even in the United States.
But close to this mystery transmitter site, the North Korean jamming signal cannot be heard over “Voice of the People.” The signal of the South Korean station is strong and clear. It’s so strong, it overloaded my radio:
In comparison, here’s what it typically sounds like anywhere away from this location. The following file was recorded in Seoul.
The conclusion? The transmitter site is almost certainly the base from which the South Korean government broadcasts the “Voice of the People” propaganda station towards North Korea.
It’s worth noting “Echo of Hope,” the second propaganda station, was received poorly at this location. That means that it probably comes from a different site.
Korean Central Television, the DPRK’s main nationwide TV channel, appears to have received another technology upgrade.
New satellite images uploaded to Google Earth show four satellite dishes on the roof of a building at the TV and radio broadcasting center. They weren’t there a few months ago.
It’s interesting because previously the TV and radio broadcasting center didn’t appear to have any link with the rest of the world. At least, nothing direct it controlled. It’s quite possible that signals from overseas were downlinked somewhere else and supplied over cable to the building.
Here’s the building as shown in a Google image from February 22 and, on the right, the same building on October 13, 2012.
In March last year the main 8pm evening news got a facelift with the use of computerized backdrops behind the presenters. For years, the evening news had used a basic backdrop of either a wooden wall or a painting of Pyongyang, so the computerized backdrops were a big change.
It’s impossible to tell what the dishes are pointed at — the pictures aren’t high enough resolution, they’re not from directly above and satellites are too closely positioned — but as an educated guess they could easily be pulling in the main Chinese, Japanese and South Korean channels. One might also be used to monitor KCTV’s output on the Thaicom-5 satellite or receive footage from the APTN or Reuters TV wire services.
A NorthKoreaTech/38 North exclusive, with contributions by Nick Hansen and Michelle Kae
New GeoEye satellite imagery from December 10 shows activity at North Korea’s Sohae Satellite Launching Station (Tongchang-ri) related to the removal of the Unha rocket from the launch pad, a process that is probably still underway and will not be completed before December 12-13 at the earliest. (NorthKoreaTech/38 North believes South Korean press reports that the entire rocket had been removed to the assembly building for repairs as of December 11 were wrong.)
This conclusion is based on a number of considerations. First, imagery taken on December 8 and 10 shows no tracks in the snow on the road between the missile assembly building and the launch pad that would be used by trailers carrying the missile stages. Second, there is no evidence to suggest that the process of moving the stages from the pad to the building had begun before December 10 when the first signs appear, suggesting new activity. If that is the case, given past North Korean practice, the process of moving the stages to the assembly building likely cannot be completed before December 12-13.
A key question is how long it might take for the North Koreans to repair the rocket, move it back to the pad and conduct the test. That effort could take approximately 9-10 days based on what is known about the first stage rocket technology as well as past North Korean behavior. Given that timeline, a launch might take place as early as December 21-22, with added flexibility possible since Pyongyang has extended its launch window until December 29.
Weather will continue to be an important consideration. Long-range forecasts, while uncertain, indicate temperatures at the launch site — minus 10 degrees centigrade or below — beginning December 21 that could not only adversely affect the rocket itself, but also cause problems for fueling. (Neither the fuel storage buildings or fuel pipes at the Sohae facility appear to be heated.)
Rocket Removed from Pad?
Reports in the South Korean press on December 11 stating that North Korea had moved all three stages of the Unha rocket off the launch pad into a nearby assembly building are inaccurate. While fixing problems with the first stage control engine mechanism will likely require taking down the rocket and either repairing or replacing the first stage, our analysis indicates that process is moving at a slower pace than what has been reported. Prior to North Korea’s announcement of technical problems on the 10th, imagery from December 7 and 8 shows that the Unha rocket was likely stacked at the gantry although the covered work platforms make it impossible to say for sure. However, recent satellite imagery from December 10 shows new activity probably related to the removal of the rocket from the launch pad.
In the December 8 imagery, there was a low level of activity, perhaps indicating a lull before moving forward with final launch preparations. The crane on top of the gantry remained stationary in the same spot both days, only a few small vehicles are present and the North Koreans had begun to clear snow from the launch pad (See figure 1). The road to the assembly building was cleared only part of the way, indicating that they believed it would not be used for heavy vehicles.
Figure 1. Light activity at the Sohae launch pad on December 8.
On December 10, there is new activity probably related to the removal of the rocket from the pad (see figure 2). The crane has moved its position from previous photos and is now on a southern angle along the axis of the pad with work platforms still surrounding the rocket. This indicates that work has been ongoing or is about to begin. Also, small security vehicles are parked in the snow-covered area of the pad. Four of these vehicles had been seen at the pad previously for the stacking of the stages on December 4. Their presence may be related to the December 10 announcement that the launch had been postponed and in preparation for removing the stages.
Figure 2. Preparations to remove stages from the pad seem to be underway on December 10.
While work may be ongoing or about to begin on December 10, there are no signs that the trailers required to carry the rocket stages have transported them from the pad to the missile assembly building where repairs would be conducted (see figure 3). Imagery taken on December 8 and 10 show no tracks in the snow on the road between the assembly building and the launch pad that would be used by these trailers. Since imagery taken before the 10th suggested that the process of taking down the stages had not yet begun and moving the stages from the pad to the assembly building would take 2-3 days based on past North Korean practices, we believe that process will not be complete before December 12-13 at the earliest.
Figure 3. Trailers to transport the first and second stages are missing, likely inside the assembly building.
Other Preparations Complete
Pyongyang appears to have completed other preparations for a launch by December 8 according to the imagery. A new development is the presence of two temporary probable instrumentation buildings in the cleared area below the launch pad on the north side near the flame trench (see figure 4). These buildings could house optical instruments used to measure the performance of the first stage’s cluster of four engines that may have been one cause of the failed April launch.
Figure 4. New probable instrumentation buildings near launch pad.
As of December 8, the Sohae instrumentation site appeared fully operational with a tracking radar, two telemetry antennas and a probable optical instrument (see figure 5). The road to the site has been plowed and on the 8th, a bus was parked near the beginning of the road indicating technicians were on site.
Figure 5. Instrumentation site appears fully operational.
The observation building where cameras are mounted to watch the launch appears operational as well, with vehicle tracks on the road up to the site. The snow had melted partially on the roof of the building indicating it may be heated (see figure 6).
Figure 6. Observation building appears operational.
At the “VIP hotels,” the snow has been cleared in the parking areas and has melted off the roofs of both buildings, indicating they are heated (see figure 7). Also, the road to these hotels from the rocket assembly building has been cleared down to the concrete, strongly indicating that some VIPs or foreign guests are either already at Sohae or are expected to arrive.
Figure 7. VIP hotels seem to be heated, with access roads cleared.
While the dark paved area surrounding the launch control building has been cleared of snow and the gate is open as of December 8, the snow has not yet melted off the roof and no vehicles are present inside the fence line (see figure 8).
Figure 8. The control building gate has opened.
While we cannot be certain, one possibility is that low temperatures at the Sohae test site over the past week have caused the delay in Pyongyang’s planned long-range rocket launch. The problem with the first-stage control engine module cited by the North may have been the result of temperatures at minus 10 degrees centigrade or below that could adversely affect lubricants on the moving rocket components, the consistency of fuel mixtures, or cause the contraction of metals. This is especially the case if a rocket, such as this one, is not designed to compensate for these problems.
If the earliest possible date for the rocket to be fully removed from the pad is as we believe December 12-13, repairs or replacement and restacking the rocket on the pad will take at least a week. Pyongyang will then resume its launch preparations and that could still take another 2-3 days to finish, given past practice. Therefore, the Unha rocket may not be ready for launch again until December 21-22 at the earliest.
Weather conditions, particularly low temperatures, will continue to be a challenging factor in the run-up to the launch, although the North’s extension of the announced window will continue to give its technicians some flexibility. While forecasting weather over the next 15 days presents problems, it appears that temperatures at the launch site will be problematic beginning December 21. (See Table 1 for weather/temperature forecast.) In addition to adversely affecting rocket performance, low temperatures can also create problems in fueling the rocket, particularly since there is no evidence to suggest that the fuel storage building or pipes leading to the pad at Sohae are heated or that the pipes are insulated.
 A light snow fell in the early morning hours of December 3 and a heavier snowfall took place between the afternoons of December 4 and 6. No new snow fell between December 7 and 10.