Infrastructure & Energy

Conversion of Yonpo Airbase to the Yonpo Vegetable Greenhouse Farm

Key Findings

  • The Yonpo Vegetable Greenhouse Farm is a major new agricultural project being undertaken as a top priority for North Korea. Set to be completed in October, the project will convert the former grounds of the Korean People’s Air and Air Defense Force (KPAF) airbase at Yonpo into an agricultural complex with hundreds of greenhouses, support buildings, and housing units.
  • Commercial satellite imagery shows the rapid start of construction in early 2022, with the Antonov An-2 (Colt) aircraft formerly at Yonpo Airbase dispersed to other airbases in January.
  • By July, imagery shows significant construction progress, with several villages surrounding the former airbase razed to make way for greenhouses, probable hydroponics, and support and housing buildings.
  • While increasing its military power has always been, and will continue to be, central to the country’s allocation of resources and development, the decision to use the grounds of former airbases for these large-scale greenhouse farms also points to an emerging policy by Kim Jong-un to repurpose underutilized KPAF air facilities into valuable and productive economic assets.
  • The transformation of the former Yonpo Airbase into a large-scale vegetable greenhouse farm is not the first of its kind. In 2019, Kyonsong-Chuul Airfield was converted into Junphyong Vegetable Greenhouse Farm. The Yonpo Vegetable Greenhouse Farm is expected to double the production capacity of its predecessor.
Left: Overview of the Yonpo Airbase, May 19, 2021. (Copyright 2022 © by Maxar Technologies)
Right: Overview of the Yonpo Vegetable Greenhouse Farm, July 25, 2022. (Copyright © Airbus DS 2022)
Image may not be republished without permission. Please contact imagery@csis.org.

Background

The Yonpo (Ryonpho) Vegetable Greenhouse Farm is a major new agricultural project being undertaken by North Korea, which began in early 2022. When completed, it will convert the former grounds of the Korean People’s Air and Air Defense Force (KPAF) airbase at Yonpo (연포비행장, 39.792279, 127.535775) located in Hamgyong-namdo (South Hamgyon Province, 함경남도) and approximately 22 kilometers southwest of Hamhung to an agriculture complex which including 825 greenhouses, support facilities, and housing, education, and cultural buildings for its workers. 

Yonpo Airbase was originally built by the Japanese Army Air Force during the 1940s as a dirt landing ground and, at the end of World War II, served as the headquarters to its 11th Operational Flying Training Unit.1 Subsequently, at the beginning of the Korean War, the airfield served as home to KPAF’s 2nd Ground Attack Regiment equipped with Ilyushin Il-10 ground attack aircraft and several training battalions.2 The airfield was later utilized by the United States Air Force (USAF) after the Marines captured the area in October 1950.3 The 35th Fighter Interceptor Group was based at the airfield, making it the first USAF fighter group moved to North Korea.4 Later in the year, the airfield was used in the evacuation effort of the greater Hungnam area following the decisive Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, supporting the airlift of patients, passengers, cargo, and the Army’s X Corps.5 By the end of the Korean War, the Yonpo runway had been paved, and the airbase was serving as home to a KPAF Il-10 ground attack regiment and Yakovlev Yak-9 fighter battalion.

Declassified image of Yonpo Airbase, 1950. (USAF)

Yonpo Airbase appears to have fallen into general disuse after the war as the KPAF gradually transferred its units to larger newly built or rebuilt airbases. During the late-1960s and early-1970s, North Korea began acquiring large numbers of Antonov An-2s (Colt) biplane transports as a component of its comprehensive effort to develop a special operations force. Subsequently, Yonpo returned to regular use to serve as home to a transport air regiment equipped with these aircraft.6 In the following years, the An-2s at Yonpo went on to support regular An-2 operations and paratroop exercises.

In more recent years, the area around the airbase was the site of several ballistic missile launches. In November 2019, North Korea successfully test launched two KN-25s from the Yonpo area.7 Three years later, in March 2021, two new short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM), assessed to be a modified version of the KN-23 and first revealed at the military parade of the 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea in January 2021, were believed to have been test launched in the area.8

In January 2022, Rodong Sinmun reported that Kim Jong-un inspected “a site in Ryonpho area of Hamju Country, Hamgyong-namdo set for a building a large-scale vegetable greenhouse farm.”9 The construction of the Yonpo Vegetable Greenhouse Farm was set as a “top-priority task” of the year during the 4th Plenary Meeting of the 8th Party Central Committee held in December 2021.10 This project is being undertaken in a manner very similar to that used for the conversion of the former Kyongsong-Chuul Airfield into the Jungphyong Vegetable Greenhouse Farm and Tree Nursery in 2019 (see below).11

Kim Jong-un’s inspection of the site of the Yonpo Greenhouse as reported on January 28, 2022. (KCNA)
Kim Jong-un at the January 28, 2022, inspection of the site of Yonpo Vegetable Greenhouse Farm. (KCTV)
Sign shown in the background of Kim Jong-un’s inspection on January 28, 2022, in full view. (KCTV)

According to the released construction layout plan on display during Kim Jong-un’s January inspection, the Yonpo Vegetable Greenhouse Farm will cover approximately 3.07 km2with 2.78 km2for the greenhouse farms and its support facilities and the other 0.29 km2for housing and living facilities. Construction plans show that the farm will consist of the following:12

  • 825 greenhouses, with a 6:4 ratio of hydroponics to soil greenhouses
  • 970 housing units
  • 135 public, production, and other buildings
    • Public buildings: 47 units
    • Production buildings: 23 units
    • Other buildings, including schools and cultural centers: 65 units
  • Approximately 30 km of electricity cables
  • Approximately 180 km of water supply, sewage, and stormwater pipelines
Poster detailing the types of buildings under construction in the Yonpo Vegetable Greenhouse Farm. (KCNA)

Less than a month after Kim Jong-un’s inspection, Rodong Sinmun reported that a ground-breaking ceremony was held at the site with Kim Jong-un in attendance on February 18, 2022.13

Groundbreaking ceremony of the Yonpo Greenhouse Farm with Kim Jong-un in attendance on February 18, 2022. (KCTV)

Construction

Commercial satellite imagery shows the rapid start of construction in early 2022. The approximately 35 An-2s of the air regiment at Yonpo Airbase were dispersed to other airbases sometime in mid-to-late January, prior to Kim Jong-un’s inspection of the site on January 28. In early February, most of the support buildings at the airbase and runway were razed in preparation for the groundbreaking ceremony on February 18.

By the end of February, satellite imagery shows grid-shaped ground scarring marking the future roads, building sites, and the perimeter of the new greenhouse farm. Construction has steadily continued in the ensuing months. By July 25, commercial satellite imagery showed that significant progress had been made with the construction project. The villages of Yonpo, Chung-ni, Pokhung-ni, and Yongsang-ni, which surrounded the airbase, were razed to make way for greenhouses, probable hydroponics, and support and housing buildings were in the process of being built. Additional construction around the site removed irrigation canals and added new bridges along the northern border of the perimeter. To the northeast, outside the perimeter of the new vegetable farm, agricultural fields were converted to serve as a construction support area with numerous warehouses, shops, and some housing.

Left: Overview of the Yonpo Airbase, May 19, 2021. (Copyright 2022 © by Maxar Technologies)
Right: Overview of the Yonpo Vegetable Greenhouse Farm, July 25, 2022. (Copyright © Airbus DS 2022)
Image may not be republished without permission. Please contact imagery@csis.org.
Left: Close-up view of the Yonpo Airbase, May 19, 2021. (Copyright 2022 © by Maxar Technologies)
Right: Close-up view of the Yonpo Vegetable Greenhouse Farm, July 25, 2022. (Copyright © Airbus DS 2022)
Village of Pokhung-ni and Yongsang-ni, along with the revetments, support buildings, and runway of the Yonpo Airbase were razed for the Yonpo Vegetable Greenhouse Farm. Image may not be republished without permission. Please contact imagery@csis.org.
Left: Close-up view of the southeast corner of Yonpo Airbase, May 19, 2021. (Copyright 2022 © by Maxar Technologies)
Right: Close-up view of the same southeast corner of the current Yonpo Vegetable Greenhouse Farm, July 25, 2022. (Copyright © Airbus DS 2022) Image may not be republished without permission. Please contact imagery@csis.org.
Left: Close-up view of the northeast corner of Yonpo Airbase, May 19, 2021. (Copyright 2022 © by Maxar Technologies)
Right: Close-up view of the same northeast corner of the current Yonpo Vegetable Greenhouse Farm, July 25, 2022. (Copyright © Airbus DS 2022) The airbase was razed to make way for greenhouses and new housing and support buildings. Three new bridges were added to the north of the perimeter.
Image may not be republished without permission. Please contact imagery@csis.org.
Left: Close-up view of the northwest corner of Yonpo Airbase, May 19, 2021. (Copyright 2022 © by Maxar Technologies) Right: Close-up view of the same northwest corner of the current Yonpo Vegetable Greenhouse Farm, July 25, 2022. (Copyright © Airbus DS 2022) The village of Chung-ni was razed and new housing units, greenhouses, and support buildings have been built. To the north, two new bridges were constructed.
Image may not be republished without permission. Please contact imagery@csis.org.
Left: Close-up view of the southwest corner of Yonpo Airbase, May 19, 2021. (Copyright 2022 © by Maxar Technologies) Right: Close-up view of the same southwest corner of the current Yonpo Vegetable Greenhouse Farm, July 25, 2022. (Copyright © Airbus DS 2022) Pokhung-ni and parts of Yonpo were razed to make way for the probable hydroponics, new support buildings, and greenhouses as part of the Yonpo Vegetable Greenhouse Farm.
Image may not be republished without permission. Please contact imagery@csis.org.
Left: Close-up view of the fields north of Yonpo Airbase, May 19, 2021. (Copyright 2022 © by Maxar Technologies) Right: Close-up view of the same area north of the current Yonpo Vegetable Greenhouse Farm, July 25, 2022. (Copyright © Airbus DS 2022) The fields were converted to a site of buildings and materials which support the ongoing construction of the Yonpo Vegetable Greenhouse Farm.
Image may not be republished without permission. Please contact imagery@csis.org

North Korea has announced a goal of finishing the construction of the greenhouse farm— “[the] most important project for this year”—by the founding anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, October 10.14 While construction projects in North Korea often experience delays and interruptions, heavy coverage of the farm’s construction progress and Kim Jong-un’s repeated visits just weeks apart indicate that the construction is a high priority for Kim and the North Korean leadership.

While increasing its military power has always been, and will continue to be, central to the country’s allocation of resources and development, the decision to use the grounds of former airbases for these large-scale greenhouse farms also points to an emerging policy by Kim Jong-un to repurpose underutilized KPAF air facilities into valuable and productive economic assets. Since Kim Jong-un inherited power, he has consistently emphasized developing real operational military capabilities and consolidating assets for increased ease and effectiveness of maintenance. Especially for aging assets such as the An-2, North Korea could easily transport to and maintain them at the other An-2 bases such as Sondok Air Base.

Jungphyong Vegetable Greenhouse Farm

The transformation of the former Yonpo Airbase into a large-scale vegetable greenhouse farm is not the first of its kind. In late 2019, the grounds of the Kyonsong-Chuul Airfield near Kyongsong, North Korea, were converted into Jungphyong Vegetable Greenhouse Farm (41.557469, 129.632113), North Korea’s first large-scale greenhouse farm.15 The farm is accompanied by housing district large enough for several hundred households, education and cultural centers and vegetable technology labs.16

Jungphyong Vegetable Greenhouse Farm. (Arirang Meari)

After the successful construction and start of operations of Jungphyong Vegetable Greenhouse Farm, which is approximately 1.98 km2, the plans for Yonpo Vegetable Greenhouse Farm indicate that the new farm will span a larger area of 3.07 km2, and its production capacity will double that of its predecessor.17 When completed, the farm will be the largest and the most technologically advanced vegetable greenhouse farm in the country.

North Korea’s expansion of its agricultural infrastructure is in line with the recent focus on the chronic issue of food shortages in the country, which the coronavirus pandemic has compounded. At the party plenary meeting in December 2021, much of Kim’s speech was focused on alleviating the country’s food insecurity by “bring[ing] about stable and sustained growth of agricultural production with the science and technology as the major driving force.”18

References

  1. Over the course of its lifetime, the airfield has been identified as Konan, Soho-dong, and most recently, Yonpo. The Korean People’s Air Force During the Korean War, unpublished manuscript by Joseph S. Bermudez Jr.
  2. FEAF Intelligence Roundup, 12 July through 27 July, 1953, No. 141.
  3. The USAF designation of Yonpo was K-27. Charles Richard Smith, U.S. Marines in the Korean War. Government Printing Office, 2007; William T. Y’Blood, Down in the Weeds: Close Air Support in Korea. Air Force Historical Studies Office, 2002.
  4. “History Milestones: Sunday January 01, 1950 – Thursday December 31, 1959,” U.S. Air Force. Archived https://archive.ph/ZikPk.
  5. Ibid.
  6. The Korean People’s Air Force During the Korean War, unpublished manuscript by Joseph S. Bermudez Jr.
  7. Min Joo Kim, “North Korea launches two projectiles in Thanksgiving message to Trump,” The Washington Post, November 28, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia-pacific/north-korea-launches-two-projectiles-in-thanksgiving-message-to-trump/2019/11/28/3cb203d4-11be-11ea-924c-b34d09bbc948_story.html.
  8. Joseph Dempsey, “North Korea tests new SRBM,” IISS, April 28, 2022, https://www.iiss.org/blogs/analysis/2021/04/mdi-north-korea-srbm; Choi Soo-hyang, “N. Korea fires 2 short-range ballistic missiles into East Sea: JCS,” Yonhap, March 25, 2021, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20210325000656325?section=nk/nk; Jang Young-suk 장용석, “단독 北26일 탄도미사일 발사 장소는 함경남도 연포비행장” (Exclusive “Yonpo Airfield the Location of North Korea’s Ballistic Missile Launch on the 26th), News 1, March 29, 2021, https://news.v.daum.net/v/20210329101516050?f=p.
  9. Rodong Sinmun, “Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Inspects Site Set for Building Ryonpho Vegetable Farm,” KCNA Watch, January 28, 2022, https://kcnawatch.org/newstream/1643345668-608528576/respected-comrade-kim-jong-un-inspects-site-set-for-building-ryonpho-vegetable-greenhouse-farm/?t=1666210115375.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Rodong Sinmun, “Jungphyong Vegetable Greenhouse Farm and Tree Nursery Completion Ceremony Held in Presence of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un,” KCNA Watch, December 4, 2019, https://kcnawatch.org/newstream/1575439240-513454629/jungphyong-vegetable-greenhouse-farm-and-tree-nursery-completion-ceremony-held-in-presence-of-supreme-leader-kim-jong-un/?t=1668978413553.
  12. KCTV, “Friday January 28, 2022 Full Broadcast,” KCNA Watch, January 28, 2022, https://kcnawatch.org/kctv-archive/61f3f259b844b/.
  13. Rodong Sinmun, “Ground-Breaking Ceremony for Construction of Ryonpho Greenhouse Farm Held Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Makes Stirring Speech and Shovels First Spadeful of Earth,” KCNA Watch, February 19, 2022, https://kcnawatch.org/newstream/1645274418-992243249/ground-breaking-ceremony-for-construction-of-ryonpho-greenhouse-farm-held-respected-comrade-kim-jong-un-makes-stirring-speech-and-shovels-first-spadeful-of-earth/?t=1666210922253.
  14. Voice of Korea, “Traces Left in the Ryonpho Area,” KCNA Watch, April 28, 2022, https://kcnawatch.org/newstream/1651136496-608758436/traces-left-in-the-ryonpho-area/?t=1668450783785.
  15. Rodong Sinmun, “Jungphyong Vegetable Greenhouse Farm and Tree Nursery Completion Ceremony Held in Presence of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un,” KCNA Watch, December 4, 2019, https://kcnawatch.org/newstream/1575439240-513454629/jungphyong-vegetable-greenhouse-farm-and-tree-nursery-completion-ceremony-held-in-presence-of-supreme-leader-kim-jong-un/?t=1668978588135.
  16. Land and Housing Research Institute, 토지주택연구원, “2022 1/4분기 북한 건설 ‧ 개발 동향” (North Korea Construction and Development Trends in the First Quarter of 2022), 한국토지주택공사 (Korea Land and Housing Corporation), May 10, 2022.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Choe Sang-Hun, “Kim Jong-un’s New Year Resolution: More Food for North Korea,” The New York Times, January 1, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/01/world/asia/north-korea-kim-jong-un.html; Rodong Sinmun, “Report on 4th Plenary Meeting of 8th C.C., WPK,” KCNA Watch, January 1, 2022, https://kcnawatch.org/newstream/1641039610-135705936/report-on-4th-plenary-meeting-of-8th-c-c-wpk/.