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Satellite imagery suggests clandestine trade activity between Russia and DPRK

Some satellites orbit the Earth while taking pictures of the world’s lights at night. The Joint Polar-orbiting Satellite System (JPSS), operated jointly by NASA and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, calls this data the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS). I recently studied North Korea using this data. The data is open source and provides daily images of the entire world.

Unusually, I detected faint lights late at night from Tumangang Station in North Korea, Khasan Station in Russia, and the North Korean port of Rajin. Taking this as potential evidence of suspected clandestine arms deals between North Korea and Russia using trains and cargo ships traveling between the two countries late in the winter night, I enlarged the images to take a closer look.

The Korean Peninsula at night

Source: JPSS VIIRS (semi-transparent areas); Translations courtesy of Angie Wanat

This is an image of Northeast Asia at night with a focus on the Korean Peninsula. It’s a very familiar image to Koreans. Streetlights brightly illuminate the major cities of each country in the region, testifying to their bustling nightlife. In contrast, North Korea is shrouded in darkness, except for Pyongyang. North Korea is known to have severe power shortages.

In the East Sea near Busan, one can detect a group of lights — a fleet of fishing boats. Presumably, they are squid boats, brightly lit by fishing lamps to that attract the squid. Squid have migrated from the East Sea recently due to climate change, rendering catches so meager that squid are likened to gold now. Nevertheless, it seems somebody was giving it a try that day.

Tumangang Station and Khasan Station at night

Source: Planet Labs with JPSS VIIRS overlay; Translations courtesy of Angie Wanat

In the far north of the Korean Peninsula is a triangular area where North Korea, China, and Russia meet. This is the only place where North Korea and Russia share a railroad connection. About 5.3 kilometers from North Korea’s Tumangang Station, across the Korea-Russia Friendship Bridge, is Russia’s Khasan Station. Trains must change wheels at Khasan Station because North Korea and Russia use different track gauges.

When North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited Russia last September, Russia used the time it took to change wheels at Khasan Station to roll out the red carpet and give Kim a state welcome. The tracks from Khasan continue to Vladivostok and from there to Europe via the Trans-Siberian Railway, the world’s longest railroad.

The VIIRS images show lights at Tumangang Station, the train depot, Khasan Station, and the Korea-Russia Friendship Bridge. This is presumably activity of an unknown nature at 1:30 AM, late at night in cold early February. I believe this is circumstantial evidence of clandestine arms deals during the wee hours of the morning.

The satellite imagery overlays high-resolution Planet Labs imagery (three meters) with JPSS VIIRS imagery (460 meters), shown semi-transparently in blue. ERDAS and ArcGIS were used to process the images and interpret the geographic data, respectively.

Rajin Port at night

Source: Planet Labs with JPSS VIIRS overlay; Translations courtesy of Angie Wanat

I also detected lights at North Korea’s Rajin Port. Rajin is located 34 kilometers southwest of Tumangang Station. The Pyongyang-Rason railroad runs above the wharf, with a branch line leading to the docks. There are three docks on the waterfront – China reportedly rents Dock 1, North Korea uses Dock 2, and Russia has rented Dock 3 for the past 50 years. The late-night lights at the port appear to be related to maritime arms traffic between North Korea and Russia.

Shiploads at Rajin go to the Russian military port of Dunay, while trainloads go to Europe via the Trans-Siberian Railway.


Suspected arms transactions between North Korea and Russia continue. In recent VIIRS imagery, I detected evidence of clandestine activity with lights on late at night at Tumangang Station and Rajin Port. I could not see the trains and ships carrying cargo due to the low resolution of the images (460 meters). However, I could see in the lights the suspected movement of goods by sea and land. North Korea may have chosen to move the goods late at night to avoid the world’s attention. The lights in the latest imagery were faint, but I still detected suspected illegal nighttime activity. This requires continuous tracking and monitoring using high-resolution satellite imagery.

Translated by David Black. Edited by Robert Lauler.

Views expressed in this guest column do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK. Please send any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

Read in Korean

February 29, 2024 at 06:30AM

by DailyNK(North Korean Media)

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