Infrastructure & Energy, Military, Nuclear Weapons

Hungnam Fertilizer Complex Update: Strategic Modernization for Multi-Purpose Use?

Key Findings

  • The Hungnam Fertilizer Complex has long been associated with producing chemical feed stocks or agents for North Korea’s nuclear weapons, chemical weapons and ballistic missile programs. Any modernization or improvement in its production capacities warrants close monitoring as they have the potential to support or augment WMD capabilities.
  • During the June 7, 2020 Politburo meeting Kim Jong-un emphasized the importance of modernizing and increasing production at the nation’s chemical complexes.
  • At the Hungnam Fertilizer Complex, one of North Korea’s oldest and largest chemical complexes, Kim’s directions have manifested themselves in the construction of a small “liquid nutrient fertilizer factory,” “3rd Gas Generator” and several smaller projects.
  • As noted in our previous report concerning the “liquid nutrient fertilizer factory” the liquid fertilizer produced here has some advantages such as ease of handling, application and blending, uniformity of application, starter and in-season application, etc.
  • The “3rd Gas Generator” is being built within the existing lignite coal gasification plant. Among the numerous products that this plant can produce are syngas, which can be converted into gasoline or diesel fuel, and a variety of feedstocks for use in other chemical processes within the complex or shipped elsewhere.
  • Chemicals produced at this facility may be used at nearby facilities tied to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program (Yongbyon and related facilities), chemical weapons program, and the ballistic missile program (Pongung Chemical Factory/2.8 Vinalon Complex, No. 17 Explosives Factory, and Chemical Materials Institute).
The Liquid Nutrient Fertilizer Factory showing the completed roofs and personnel, materials and equipment laid out in the parking area, August 17, 2020. (Copyright © 2020 by Planet)

As a component of a larger nationwide program to modernize and upgrade production capacity at its major chemical plants (e.g., Sunchon Phosphatic Fertilizer Factory) North Korea has, during the past two years, undertaken several small construction projects within the Hungnam Fertilizer Complex. The first of these was the construction of a “Liquid Nutrient Fertilizer Factory” in the eastern section of the plant (39.840678° 127.629147°), which began construction during mid-October 2019. In May 2020 it was reported that the buildings for the factory were almost complete. A satellite image acquired on May 13, 2020, however, showed that while the exterior walls were essentially complete, the roofs on the buildings were still under construction. A more recent image acquired on August 17, 2020 shows that progress has been made (e.g., the roofs on the buildings have been completed). However, the project is not complete as indicated by the personnel, materials and equipment laid out in the parking area in front of the buildings. Some of the equipment for the factory is reportedly being manufactured by the Ryongsong (Pyongsong) Machine Complex.1

The second project has been the construction of the “3rd Gas Generator” within the lignite coal gasification plant in the western section of the complex. Among the numerous products the coal gasification plant can produce are syngas, which can be converted into gasoline or diesel fuel, and a variety of feedstocks (e.g., hydrogen, cyanide, etc.) for other chemical processes within the complex or shipped elsewhere. Construction of the 3rd Gas Generator () began in mid-May 2020 and a June 28, 2020 Rodong Sinmun report shows ongoing construction of the facility with steel rebar reinforced concrete forms in place and concrete being poured. Assisting the Hungnam Fertilizer Complex in the construction of the 3rd Gas Generator are reportedly teams from the Dancheon (Tanchon) Mining and Construction Complex, Hamhung Industrial Construction Enterprise and “female workers from multiple districts in Hamhung-si.”2

The latter are engaged “…in various labors, such as breaking pebbles and carrying rebars.”3

A close-up view of the construction work on the 3rd Gas Generator showing the steel rebar reinforced concrete forms in place and concrete being poured. (Rodong Sinmun)
An image showing “on-site command” personnel who are reportedly “…ensuring that materials and equipment for construction are provided in a timely manner by properly deciding order of the construction.” The propaganda text reads “Complete with do or die spirit” (lower left, in red), “With the spirit of self-reliance, Complete the construction of launch…” (top center in blue and red), “Take the bull by the horns” (center vertical banner) and “Youth-oriented” (right vertical banner). (Rodong Sinmun)

Satellite imagery acquired on August 17, 2020 shows that construction work has continued but is not yet complete. Considering the observed rate of construction, and barring unforeseen circumstances, construction of the 3rd Gas Generator could be completed during early 2021.

The 3rd Gas Generator facility under construction, August 17, 2020. (Copyright © 2020 by Planet)

In addition to the Liquid Nutrient Fertilizer Factory and 3rd Gas Generator, the June Rodong Sinmun report mentions other ongoing construction projects at the Hungnam Fertilizer Complex. These include a rotary drying furnace at the “raw material factory” and foundation and pipe construction on a urea tower. It is unclear if this latter work is for a new urea tower or modernization of the two existing towers. The Ryongsong (Pyongsong) Machine Complex is reportedly manufacturing the pumps for the urea tower work.

While the production of fertilizer is a normal and essential component of North Korea’s agricultural sector, any modernization or improvement in chemical production capabilities warrants close monitoring as the Hungnam Fertilizer Complex has long been associated with producing chemical feed stocks or agents for North Korea’s nuclear weapons program (e.g., used in fissile material production at Yongbyon and the uranium concentration process), chemical weapons program (e.g., as precursors or agents) and the ballistic missile program (e.g., used in the production of liquid or solid-propellants or solid rocket motor casings at the nearby Pongung Chemical Factory/2.8 Vinalon Complex, No. 17 Explosives Factory, and Chemical Materials Institute).

References

Show 3 Footnotes
  1. Lee Cheol-ok, “Let’s thoroughly observe the decision of the 13th Political National Assembly of the 7th Party Central Committee,” Rodong Sinmun, June 28, 2020.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid