Thursday, July 18, 2024

Satellite imagery shows production underway at Kaesong complex

I recently reviewed recent developments at the Kaesong Industrial Complex using satellite imagery. Thermal infrared data from NASA’s Landsat-8 satellite was used to analyze plant operations, and high-resolution imagery from Maxar satellites was used to assess other changes around the facility.

My analysis of the thermal infrared data showed that a factory producing communications equipment (owned by a South Korean company) was operating regularly, given the high levels of heat being emitted there. There was also evidence that production was underway at factories making injection molds, auto parts, and garments.

Photographs taken by the WorldView-2 satellite show that a building at the northern entrance to the complex has been demolished, that groundwork is underway for a building on a nearby lot, and that large fields of Goryeo ginseng, a Kaesong specialty crop, are being cultivated on the outskirts of the complex.

Thermal infrared analysis of facility operations

An analysis of thermal infrared imagery finds that a factory producing communication parts in the Kaesong Industrial Complex is in regular operation, and facilities for injection molds, automobile parts and garments are running as well. Imagery=Left: Google Earth, Right: Landsat-8 (thermal infrared)

Thermal infrared data taken on June 26 (with a resolution of 100 meters) were analyzed to assess the operation of facilities in the Kaesong Industrial Complex. The average temperature that day was 29 degrees Celsius, ranging from a low of 23 to a high of 34.

A factory in the complex that produces communications equipment was found to be emitting high levels of heat, at 34 degrees, and factories producing injection molds, auto parts and garments were also found to be operating.

These factories are all nominally owned by South Korean companies: the communications parts factory is owned by an information and communications technology company called Amos, the auto parts factory is owned by a company called Samas Electronics, and the garment factory is owned by a company called In the F. This is seen as evidence that North Korea is operating these South Korean factories without permission.

Changes to facilities at the complex

Satellite images show that a building at the northern entrance to the Kaesong Industrial Complex (see top left) has been demolished and that groundwork is underway for a building in a nearby lot. A considerable area around the complex is being cultivated with ginseng, which is a specialty crop in Kaesong. Imagery=WorldView-2 (ⓒ2024 Maxar, U.S.G. Plus)

A recent satellite image taken by WorldView-2 (with a resolution of 50 centimeters) revealed that a building at the northern entrance of the complex (top left in the image) has been demolished, while groundwork is being done on a vacant lot (measuring 50×15 meters) to the right of a technical training center in the image.

The satellite image also indicates that North Korea is cultivating ginseng crops in open areas on the southwestern edge of the complex, between textile, sewing and fabric facilities on one side and apartment-style factories on the other. The larger ginseng field (0.8 acres) and the smaller one (0.3 acres) total 1.1 acres.

Given the other plots that have been cleared, it is likely that more ginseng will be grown in the area. The covers that keep young ginseng plants in the shade are also visible in the satellite image in a light brown color, different from the black vinyl that South Korean farmers typically use as ginseng shade covers.

According to Kim Hyeok, a researcher with the Korea Rural Community Corporation, vinyl shade covers are too expensive for North Korean farmers, who instead tie rice sheaves together to shade their ginseng plants.

The material of the ginseng shade covers teaches us another difference between South and North Korea that comes in handy when interpreting satellite imagery. The ginseng grown in Kaesong has long been known as Goryeo ginseng.

There is some encouraging news as well. Some recent scholarly articles gives me reason to be confident in my thermal infrared analysis. A series of detailed analyses of the reliability of thermal infrared imagery is being published by Beyond Parallel, a US-based website on North Korea. Two lengthy articles in a three-part series have been published so far, and I have read each sentence with great interest. The second article in the series concludes that analyses of thermal infrared data from North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility are credible.

The Beyond Parallel writers said that the results of the thermal infrared analysis were consistent with operational records of the Yongbyon facility in the possession of the United Nations. The areas where high temperatures were detected in the thermal infrared data were the same as the operating facilities at Yongbyon.

But the authors also cautioned that the data may not be sufficient to determine the operational status of facilities that are operated more occasionally, since they emit little heat.

This is a fair observation. Readers hardly need to be told that low levels of heat on the surface would only register faintly on the sensors of a satellite orbiting 700-800 kilometers above the Earth.

I am glad that my questions about the reliability of thermal infrared analysis seem to have been answered, and I think we can be more confident about analyzing this data to draw conclusions about the operation of the facility in the future. I am grateful to Beyond Parallel for publishing articles that answered my questions, and I look forward to the finale of the series.

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