Monitoring North Korean Monuments from Space

February 13, 2019

Jeffrey Lewis

Many observers have noted that North Korea’s external propaganda shifted over the course of 2018, as nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles were replaced with an emphasis on economic development. Notably, North Korea’s military parade on September 9 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the DPRK did not include any long-range missiles associated with the nuclear-weapon program. (A unit of the Strategic Rocket Force did, however, march in the parade.)

Accounts from within North Korea, however, indicate that the DPRK’s internal propaganda continues to emphasize the role of nuclear weapons. For example, the DailyNK reported in September that “the authorities handed down an order for lectures that place emphasis on the country’s ‘successful attainment of nuclear weapons’ and North Korea as a ‘nuclear superpower.’” (The DailyNK later confirmed that the lectures had been delivered.)

Satellite images of monuments offer one way to assess whether North Korea’s internal propaganda continues to emphasize nuclear weapons. Monuments play an important role in North Korean political culture. This emphasis on monumental sculpture is unusual enough that North Korea’s Mansudae Art Studio is highly sought after by authoritarian political leaders in other parts of the world, including Africa, seeking statues and monuments of their own. Here is a picture of our former colleague and podcast co-host, Andrea Berger, posing next to one of these monstrosities in Namibia.

The commissions for monumental structures are a source of hard currency for North Korea, and the United States Treasury Department has sanctioned Mansudae Art Studios.

North Korea has also, as Dave Schmerler and I have noted before, built monuments at the sites of its first Hwasong-14 ICBM and Hwasong-15 ICBM launches. These monuments have never been shown in North Korean state propaganda, but they are visible in satellite images.

North Korea constructed a monument at the site of the July 4, 2017, Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic-missile (ICBM) launch. The monuments include structures at both the launch site and the site where Kim Jong Un viewed the launch.

North Korea also constructed a monument at the site of the Hwasong-15 launch in November 2017 near Pyongsong, an outer suburb of Pyongyang. A series of satellite images from Planet Labs show that the monument was constructed in February and March 2017. Construction was completed in advance of the April 2018 Inter-Korean Summit at Panmunjom.

These monuments, completed in early 2017, do not appear to have been forgotten. A pair of images from Digital Globe, taken one minute apart on the same day in September 2018, appear to show a group of people visiting the Hwasong-15 monument near Pyongsong.

It is possible this was an unreported visit by senior regime official in the run-up to the September 9 military parade to mark the founding of the DPRK. It is unclear whether this visit included Kim Jong Un. There were no public leadership activities by Kim Jong Un reported between Kim’s appearance at the funeral for Kim Yong Chun on August 20 and his visit to the Ju Kyu Chang’s wakeon September 4. Both events occurred in Pyongyang.

The visit to the Hwasong-15 ICBM monument, whether it involved Kim or not, would appear to be consistent with reports from inside North Korea that the government continues to emphasize the importance of the completion of North Korea’s nuclear program, even as propaganda emphasizes economic development and diplomatic efforts on so-called “denuclearization” continue.

North Korea may choose not to publicize activities such as visits to monuments, but satellite images demonstrate that they are continuing.

Comments Are Closed