What satellite images reveal about Kim’s riches & DPRK’s problems

The regime’s leadership guarantees Kim Jong Un lavish pleasures. Meanwhile, the country’s military strength balloons. But many of its 26 Million suffer. How well off is North Korea really? Satellite images allow peeking behind well-guarded propaganda curtains.

18 min readDec 23, 2023
Collage with intro of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) state-run television KRT broadcast a documentary film titled “The Great Year of Victory, 2021” on Tuesday (February 1, Newsreport).

Many stories about the wealth of cruel authoritarian rulers are connected to horses. There was Genghis Khan, who preferred a military horse with exceptional speed and stamina. Napoleon, Emperor of France, and his famous portrait Napoleon Crossing the Alps, showing him on horseback and apparent affection for the mammals.

And who can forget the shirtless Vladimir Putin on horseback, during a vacation in Southern Siberia? Kim Jong Un follows a long line of emperors who used horse riding as a portrayal of strength and superiority. Kim uses it to show his lavish lifestyle and how easily he gets around sanction restrictions.

“…riding a horse and trying to look awesome while doing it is kind of Dictator 101”, VOX.com

On a beach, he rides a horse for an important propaganda documentary film. It’s shot near one of his lavish luxury beach mansions. His daughter likes horses too. Kim Ju-ae is supposed to be excellent at horseback riding, a South Korean lawmaker noted once.

A dictator with a fondness for horse riding also needs horse riding tracks. Kim built a number of those in the past years. They can be easily spotted from satellite images. It’s another way to show his wealth to the rest of the world.

Wouldn't Kim Jong-un be a cruel leader, sanctioned for his regime of perpetrating human right violations and driving the whole country economically into shambles, there might be more sympathy for his hobby. Kim’s strict Covid-19 policies and years of mismanagement of national coffers, led to a dire status quo: The world’s most isolated nation with one of the wealthiest supreme Leaders, faces trouble to feed its people.

Experts from the UN and South Korean authorities are concerned. Some pundits called it “the worst humanitarian crisis since the 90ies”. This is difficult to verify those claims. There is no official data. Human sources are scarce, too. Few defectors, with information on how North Korean’s situation, make it out of the country these days. The fear of starvation is deeply engrained. In the 90ies, an estimated 3–5 percent of what was then a 20 million-strong population starved to death. The only half reliable source of intelligence are satellite images, some experts think.

There, the impression is a stark contrast of building efforts. Instead of new factories and additional agriculture capacity, ensuring food security, the country’s leader built and upgraded now luxury golf courses, magnificent mansions, luxury apartments, new skyscrapers in the capital — and also new horse riding tracks. There is also a second private underground train station.

Kim Jong Un ordered to build three new horse riding tracks since 2019/2020.

Source: Google Earth Pro, BH, supported by JacobBogle

Kim adores horses and spends a fortune of public funds on importing them. They mostly come from DPRK military ally Russia. In 2020, he built a large horse racing track near Pyongyang, located on the grounds of the Taedong Guest House, one of the mansions used to house foreign leaders during visits to North Korea. A year earlier, Kim built one at his Wonsan residence, which was constructed onto a runway of his mansion, that he didn't need anymore.

Now, in July 2023, a third track was spotted near Kim Jong Un’s beach resort in the north-east. New satellite images by Planet Labs show the construction (image from July 2023, at 39.858892, 127.723217)

NK News reporting: link

The region of his beach mansion is one of Kim Jong Un’s favorite. Here, he has everything he needs. Seven km south-east of his latest horse track sits his luxury beach villa, a lakeside mansion, called Majon beach. The beach served as a filming location of a horseback scene for the intro of his propaganda documentary “2021: A Great Victorious Year” (see intro).

2021 was one of the hardest years for its population. By January, the country's borders had been closed for one year, cutting trade with main trading partner China by three quarters. Kim Jong-un secretly battled outbreaks of the coronavirus, while his beach mansion received expensive renovation works. A bit later, the mansion should receive another significant upgrade. A new missile platform. From here he had a great view to observe the testing of his missiles.

Majon beach mansion, July 2023

Kim Jong-un’s Majon Beach mansion is not only fun and pleasure. For the supreme leader, it also means military business.

One analyst, researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, spotted (circled) testing launch sites, one of North Koreas 27’s SRBM in January and a site for a cruise missile test also in 2022

Majon Beach Mansion here and the location of missile tests right next to it

Not far, another major upgrade makes this place emblematic for wasted state funds. A new secured private train station. The supreme leader avoids traveling by plane. (“Security concern” is the official line and presumably the reason why a number of air strips vanished over the years). This new 300 meter long and 25 meters wide underground train station, is a state-of-the-art construction, akin to the one of a similar private train station built in the capital in 2020.

18 June 2023 — In the middle of construction: Kim’s new train station, and railway sections near Majon mansion (south of it) and Kim Jong Suk Naval University (north of it) — NK News spearheaded with some reporting on it in July. Satellite image zoom to 39.856937202868515, 127.69781614015405

Sidenote on forces labour: Can we be sure this new train station is not built with forced labour by political prisoners? After the death of the previous ruler, Phil Robertson at Human Rights Watch reported that Kim Jong-Un picked up where his father and grandfather left off “by overseeing a system of … brutal forced labor”. So called kwan-li-so camps continue “forced labor in highly dangerous conditions”, so HRW.

Wealth grab with public funds

That Kim Jong Un wastes state resources on luxury goods, isn't new. The UN Security Council noted in 2014 that the regime spent “large amounts of state resources, including parallel funds directly controlled by the supreme leader, on luxury goods and the advancement of his personality cult instead of providing food to the starving general population”.

It built mansions and European sports cars. Several hundred million dollars in 2012 alone. In economic terms, analysts noted that back then, the country spent more on luxury goods than on licit imports from the rest of the world combined.

In 2020, when even the regime leadership admitted problems, this spending bonanza did not end. Satellite images show the luxury boom, in times of crisis, happily continued.


Robert Lauler, editor at Daily NK says the country still lacks a modernized agricultural sector that efficiently produces food, which is one of the roots of the country’s food problems. For an analysis for the BBC, his team spoke to North Korean citizens who remained living in the country.

Their statements suggested that over the past several years during the COVID-19 pandemic, citizens had been made economically vulnerable. Even before the pandemic, they were facing difficulties and sometimes lacking food items. In some cases, “people under extreme levels of poverty face starvation”, Lauler said. “Reports on deaths have surfaced here and there and have mainly been anecdotal”, he added.

Satellite images show that, especially since 2020 Kim Yon Un’s appetite for big luxury real estate has grown. While the population had to endure the consequences of a deep economic recession, they were told to make sacrifices. Asking people to be more “self-sufficient” has long been a standard line taken by the regime to encourage people to endure economic challenges, Lauler explained.

Instead of investing in repairing industrial facilities, modernizing the agricultural sector to ensure economy output, fixing trade channels and roads, the regime decided to secure the national borders. Officially, an attempt to contain the coronavirus.

On spending public funds: Of course, such “investments” are not to be considered spending, in the same way a traditional economy functions. There might not be any funds transferred, no money touched. Workers may be paid a fraction of what they would earn in other countries to build what the regime dictates. There might also be forced labor, which comes “for free”.

North Korea significantly tightened its border security after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, analysts pointed out. The country stationed more troops along the border and has installed more fences and surveillance cameras to prevent people from entering and leaving.

Before the pandemic, smuggling was a constant factor in the China-North Korea border relationship. By intensifying security on the border, the regime has aimed to prevent smuggling — or at least that it is not occurring under government auspices. The added fencing interfered with plans of defectors to flee, mainly due to the difficult economic conditions, and try to head for China or attempt the journey to South Korea.

Since Covid-19 hit the country, North Korea installed some thousands of new border posts, according to an analysis by Jacob Bogle, a researcher based in Florida and founder of the project creator of the AccessDPRK blog

Securing the border, border posts and fencing along the western land and sea border — Source Jacob Bogle

New guard posts, triggered by Covid-19 border security measures, must have prevented defectors to escape, data suggests. Records on successful escapes of North Korean defectors hit rock bottom in 2021 and 2022.

Unikorea.go.kr, BH

In 2022, the lowest rate of defectors was recorded since 1998, according to data by the South Korea’s Ministry of Unification. The mere attempt of escaping is a political criminal offense. North Korea’s 2009 criminal law of the regime dictates that leaving the country without permission is a crime of “treachery against the nation,” punishable by death.

Kim Jong Un wants to make sure that no one gets out. For this, he goes the extra mile and installed new border fencing, even in places where it makes little sense, such as circumventing a small river island area (on the Yalu river, built in 2020)

Example of newly built border fences since 2020, erected on the border to China — satellite Images, 40.057906, 124.353192, Google Earth Pro

Since 2020, Pyongyang has built hundreds of kilometers of new or upgraded border fencing, walls and guard posts, tightening the flow of information, goods, and defectors, a 2023 Reuters investigation found.

To finance those and other military upgrades, the regime's steadily increased stealing cryptocurrencies. Last year, some analysis estimated that state-linked hackers stole virtual assets worth at least $630 million in 2022 alone, a record year.

NK News reporting on upgrades on the North Korean border (link)

Particularly irking to South Korea are some of the latest military upgrades: Additional guard posts on the border between North and South Korea. Kim's military apparatus installed heavy weapons along its border after withdrawing from a key military agreement (the 2018 Comprehensive Military Agreement with Seoul), according to news reports from November. Earlier in November, satellite images suggested that additional fencing, construction of 63 km barrier and guard posts around the capital, so NK News.


The way how Kim Jong-un handled the COVID-19 crisis entails signs of how badly he and his staff can act upon humanitarian needs of his country’s citizens.

Covid-19 measures had compounded the problems associated with limited healthcare, food production, activist groups argued. While first denying that there were no COVID-19 cases, the regime quickly changed course.

Kim then ordered to seal off the country to curb the spread of the virus. But it also stopped the flow of trade. Without trade (mostly with China) the sanction-ridden country could no longer function. If there ever was one, this may have contributed to a severe shortage of food, medicine, and other necessities.

It was also Kim Jong Un’s opportunity to expel foreign aid workers (exodus, assessment by HRW NK correspondent) which prevented medical and food aid to reaching North Koreans in need. Kim Jong Un also rejected offers by the international community to provide millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses. Despite constructing medical facilities, without a vaccine and medical supplies, these facilities were no more than prisons for those infected.

Human rights activist organization Human Rights Watch said that Covid-19 measures, including the securing of the border, were merely a pretext to prevent people from escaping.

“The North Korean government used purported Covid-19 measures to further repress and endanger the North Korean people,” wrote HRW Korea researcher Lina Yoon. “The government should redirect its energies to improving access to food, vaccines, and medicine, and respecting freedom of movement and other rights”, so HRW.

What impression government medical facilities give on satellite images shows the example of “Chorwon COVID Isolation Facility” in the south of the country. It was built inside an old stadium, satellite researcher Bogle added.

One example of a North Korean Covid-19 isolation facility, at 38°20'46.40"N, 126°53'50.11"E

Without necessary medical supplies, the facility may be no more than a prison for infected North Koreans.

According to Bogle, the site above is only one among more than 50 COVID-19 quarantine facilities throughout the country. Conspicuous is that the construction of these facilities started long before the North Korean regime announced its first official outbreak in 2022 (source).

To accommodate such new facilities, the North Korean regime turned at least one building, once an agricultural building, the Hyesan facility (at 41.385223° 128.199295°), into quarantine facilities.

Source: kindly by Jacob Bogle

A direct link to how North Korea responded to Covid-19 and food shortages sees the United Nations. In March, it warned in a report that North Korea's unprecedented self-isolation since the pandemic outbreak aggravated the suffering of its people.

Luxury building boom — not for the poor

Kim Jong-un is not shy to ask its citizens to “make sacrifices”. A precarious economic and humanitarian situation would require everyone to suffer, so the party line. Meanwhile, fancy skyscrapers and luxury flats sprout across Pyongyang. How does this square?

In late 2021, a new skyscraper popped out of the ground in the capital. Kim Jong-un ordered the construction of an 80-story skyscraper and 44 other tall concrete apartment buildings. It was built in record time, too — in less than half a year, satellite images suggest.

From the bird's-eye perspective, the divide between the elite rich, often including senior members of Kim Jong-un’s government, and poor North Koreans in the capital, is nowhere as obvious as here. Because only 300 meters north of the new high-rise building is Pyongyang’s biggest slum.

Satellite image, 38°59'57.53"N, 125°46'56.70"E, Google Earth Pro, supported by Jacob Bogle

Satellite images can't show if people starve. But they can identify the poorest areas, where starvation is likely most imminent. One such area is the 2.7 square kilometer large area of the Pyongyang “slum”. Jacob Bogle says satellite images and reports suggest the areas check all the boxes of the UN criteria for a slum.

There is the housing quality, narrow streets, photographs, and testimonies by former Pyongyang residents alleging poor water quality and electricity issues throughout the city. All this would meet the UN definition for a slum, Bogle explains. There are very few roads and no real urban planning. The houses are old and dilapidated.

Slum-like area in Pyongyang in a rare photo that leaked abroad

How the people faired in the slum area since the pandemic is difficult to confirm by merely looking at satellite images. But reports of starvation and death in the capital did surface. Poorly equipped with medical support, Pyongyang slum could have been hit hard. Houses are visibly squeezed together. Here, a virus can spread quickly.

The slum area, visible on satellite images, is also one of the few areas in the capital Kim Jong-un “forgot” to modernize. The data on real estate upgrades within the capital show it was omitted from the ruler's recent redevelopments, since he came to power in 2011.

In 2011, his father Kim Jong-il tried to build 100,000 houses in Pyongyang but had to pause the project due to lack of funds. Of the construction that did happen before the halt, many of the buildings were left incomplete. Kim Jong-un’s current building effort is a modified plan of Kim Jong-il’s original plan. Despite, the effort to complete the unfinished buildings and adding a new district added — such as the Taephyong District, during all of this construction, Pyongyang slum areas have not been improved, Bogle added.

Major areas of new construction and renovation under Kim Jong-un (Data: AccessDPRK.com)

But not only the slum in Pyongyang saw any of the state funds. Also, essential industry were neglected. A prime example is the large Pyongyang wood treatment factory. Satellite images show missing roofs, unfinished construction, and overgrown factory courts.

The dilapidated structure of the facility was neglected since building works kicked off in 2019. It was discontinued officially due to the economic downturn. In 2023, the factory is left to rot.

Pyongyang Wood Factory on 18. June 2023
Dilapidated and left to decay because the regime needed to spend the money elsewhere: Pyongyang Wood Factory — Google Earth Pro Satellite image, 39° 2'50.96"N, 125°43'51.35"E

Instead, Kim Jong-un decided the funds were better placed in something that keeps his Pyongyang elite happy and submissive. Despite economic hardship, examples of multibillion luxury building projects took off in 2021. In the capital, 50 new low-rise apartment buildings were built.

Interactive comparison via Knightlab juxtapose tool:

Link for Viz — Satellite images, 39.029314337150986, 125.74519904903772

Analysts spotted Kim Jong-un visiting the construction site three time. The Pothong Riverside Terraced Residential District project, was inaugurated on April 13, 2022. The new housing was built on top of the areas where Kim Il Sung’s official residence was located until the 70ies.

Not much further south, lies Kim Jong-un’s in 2023 built hardened garage. where he keeps his around 100 luxury cars, many of them from Europe and by German car manufacturers.

One of apparently many luxury cars, new research finds

Also, not far from the new luxury apartments, the Russian embassy. Russia is now among North Korea's closest allies, and Russian Ambassador to North Korea Alexander Matsegora kept supporting Kim Jong-un’s propaganda message by publicly denying all reports of mass starvation in the country.

The role of the new luxury apartments of Riverside Terraced, so experts, is that Kim has means to provide special treatment to elite North Koreans, among them his military generals — to boost loyalty as he grapples with the pandemic, a troubled economy and a stalemate in nuclear diplomacy with the US. One of its first occupants was state media anchor Ri Chun-Hee. She helped the supreme leader to propagate his nuclear missile tests.

Keeping the military elite with such projects happy and aligned is probably the most paramount objective Kim Jong-un right now. Japanese diplomats think North Korea can now fit nuclear weapons to ballistic missiles. Doubters in Kim Jong-un ranks are not welcome.

And Kim Jong-un is unafraid to make radical changes if his fellow members of the military elite, are not be willing to follow him into military aggression, it seems.

In August, Kim reshuffled the military leadership. He gets rid of his top General Pak Su Il. Another longstanding member of the regime’s military elite took his place. With the reshuffle among the military leadership, Kim Jong-un’s aims to prepare his army for, to what state sources call “gird for a war”. This August, Kim Jong-un ordered to “drastically boost” production capacity of missiles, so facilities can mass produce them to meet the needs of frontline military units.

The signs of an apparent change in military strategy are obvious on satellite images. Built in 2019–2020, one new missile factory 30 km north of Pyongyang should help to increase North Korea’s capacity to produce the launch vehicles used for ballistic missiles.

18. June 2023: New missile factory 30 km north of Pyongyang with underground components: Satellite Image at 39.953416° 127.546734°

The Tonghungsan Machine Plant received a complete overhaul since 2019 and 2020, including a massive underground facility. It should produce parts for missiles and other weapon systems.

There are hundreds of other expensive upgrades to military facilities, according to the analysis of North Korea researcher Bogle. Money was also wasted on thousands of new memorial sites, such as bronze statues (below), he say. Similar major upgrades to food production facilities, and other real estate to support the average population, are missing. At least, this is the result of a month-long satellite data investigation.

Source Bogle: These are bronze statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il. They were erected in 2019. Although monuments don’t always make the ‘coolest’ looking satellite image, you may want to include the fact that since coming to power, Kim Jong Un has renovated over 5,200 tower monuments and built nearly 900 additional monuments of different types, including the addition of ~300 murals of Kim Jong-il.

Satellite images are not perfect, of course. Only accounts by real people can fill in the gabs. Some North Korea's told journalists about the harsh reality in the country. Statements by sources this investigation could not verify, said the famine would starve people to death. One person told the BBC journalists “that since the border closure, they either starve to death or be executed for flouting the rules”. That the situation got so bad, is certainly also the fault of the harsh international sanctions against the North Korea. Those were first imposed after the country’s first nuclear test in 2006.

Underground to battle satellite spies

For the last decade, Jacob Bogle busied himself with looking at new development on publicly available satellite images. As a researcher and satellite geek, his hobby became his life and work, he explains. Today, Bogle mapped out ever visible corner of the country. His dataset, now spanning some 64,000 markers, includes the biggest list of locations, structures and real estate labelling for the DPRK. Among others, Bogle mapped out the countries’ vast network of underground structures and tunnels (link). Bogle spotted them on satellite images when they were built and could then infer for what they are used for.

“North Korea’s dedication to digging is astounding”, Bogle adds. Some 2,100 Tunnels and underground facilities he found. That doesn't include military facilities. They are rather relicts of the past, built during the era of Kim Jong Un’s father, than a targeted attempt to avoid satellite reconnaissance by the west. But 31 underground sites were either built by Kim Jong Un or substantially renovated under his rule, he says. Except for Kim Jong-un’s luxury car garage and another site, all of these underground constructions, are built for military purpose.

Underground facilities are used primarily to protect sensitive targets from aerial/missile attack. And as Kim Jong-un becomes more bellicose, it seems likely his architects and military planners will keep digging.

Resolution for publicly available satellite images did improve over the years. Images, now available on Google Earth Pro, from commercial firms such as Airbus or Maxar, are now at 30 cm pixel resolution. A good enough quality for the hobby researcher to spot cars, dots of people, debilitating buildings or new underground military facilities.

But Kim must also be aware of the powers of state linked satellite reconnaissance. Ex-President Donald Trump accidentally revealed the power of US satellites by posting a photo he took from an intelligence print-out. To experts in the field, it revealed that high-resolution satellite imagery is likely higher than 25 centimeters — while the US regulations prohibit commercial imagery better than 0.25-meter resolution and restricts it to specific wavelengths, as Brian Weeden Secure World Foundation pointed out.

link, link
Nearly 30 underground military sites, built by Kim Jong Un

Ironically, it's also satellite images that expose Kim Jong-un’s own plans to use satellite to spy on other countries, most interesting is of course, South Korea. For that reason, he constructed a satellite launch pad recently.

Satellite launch pad at 39.651683, 124.736733

Remarkable is the pace of construction, experts say. First observed under construction on April 30, the pad went from simple foundations to a completed concrete pad in just four days.

Link to details, On 30 May 2023 a new orbital launch attempt took place, the failed launch consisted of a test flight of the Chollima-1 launch vehicle, carrying the Malligyong-1 reconnaissance satellite. Remarkable is the record time the new launch pad was built. First observed under construction on April 30, the pad went from simple foundations to a completed concrete pad in just four days.

To date, the regime had no luck to place its own satellites in space. Kim wanted to change that. Building of one launch pad started in 2023, within the Sohae Satellite Launch Center. With it, North Korea could now launch spy satellites and test missiles. After a number of failed attempts, Kim succeeded at the end of November 2023 and declared a successful launch of a spy satellite.

Bruce W. Bennett at Rand pointed out that Kim is keen to, what the leader phrased, could “curb dangerous invasion moves by the hostile forces”. Again, it doesn't seem to get the country any closer to upending its economic difficulties. The launched breached multiple resolutions by the U.N. Security Council. It seems, despite efforts by the US and other western countries to deescalate, North Korea’s leader is seeking war. And satellites, so it seems, will remain at the heart of this debate.

You can read the whole story by Süddeutsche Zeitung here.




Investigative journalist with a technical edge, interested in open source investigations, satellite imgs, R, python, AI, data journalism and injustice