Manpo Unha Factory Part 2: History and Development
This is the second of a two-part report identifying the Manpo Unha Factory as the source of the specialized rail tank cars first observed at the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center in the early 2000s.1 The first part introduces the Manpo Unha Factory and its connection to the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center, and this second part discusses the development the Manpo Unha Factory and its surrounding area since 1973.
Development of Manpo Unha Factory
Construction of the Manpo Unha Factory began sometime in late 1973, and the factory appears to have been operational by 1975. Subsequently, a March 1980 Central Intelligence Agency report described the facility as a “Liquid Propellant Facility”:
“What appears to be a liquid propellant plant has been identified about 5 kilometers south of Manpo-up, near the North Korean-Chinese border. The facility seems to be designed to produce highly concentrated hydrogen peroxide, which can be used as a propellant or oxidizer in missiles, rockets, and torpedoes.
…Construction of the facility began in late-1973 and it appeared operational by 1975. The facility probably produces hydrogen peroxide by the electrolysis of sulfuric acid or potassium persulfate. The major components identified at this facility include an electrolysis building, two lead chamber sulfuric acid plants, a steam plant, an evaporation/waste treatment section, and a concentration/stabilization section. The presence of eight low-pressure absorbers/distillation towers and an explosives storage area indicates that a 90- to 95-percent-concentrate hydrogen peroxide solution is likely being produced. High-concentrate hydrogen peroxide is explosive and a fire hazard. A 93-percent concentrate is desirable for hydrogen peroxide used as a mono- or bi-propellant, an oxidizer, or an agent in propellant tank pressurization.”2
Little is known concerning the activities and development of the factory from the mid-1980s through 2000. However, the initial core loading of North Korea’s 5MW(e) Experimental Nuclear Power Plant reportedly occurred in 1985, with the reactor operating until 1994, when it was shut down for reloading. Overlapping this was the cold and hot testing of the Radiochemistry Laboratory in 1990. The Radiochemistry Laboratory would subsequently reprocess the reactor’s irradiated fuel rods separating out weapons-grade plutonium-239 for nuclear weapons. These developments would necessitate an increased requirement of chemicals from the Manpo Unha Factory and may have been reflected in the June 1990 North Korean media report that the “Manpo Unha Factory topped its first half-year quota 26.5 percent at the end of April.”3 Although how these early chemicals were delivered to the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center has not been confirmed, it is likely that it was using specialized rail tank cars.
During this period and extending into the late 1990s, North Korean media reported that Kim Jong-il visited the factory on at least three occasions—likely an indication the site’s importance. On or around October 22, 1998, Kim Jong-il visited Manpo and gave “on-the-spot guidance” to various facilities, among which was the “Unha Plant.”4 Accordingly,
“After listening to an explanation in front of the drawing of the entire plant, Comrade Kim Jong-il looked around the production processes, learned about the status of production, and expressed his great satisfaction with the fact that the workers of the plant arranged their workplaces in a hygienic and cultural manner and were vigorously waging the struggle to overfulfill their production assignments. Comrade Kim Jong-il pointed out that the workers must plant many trees around the plant to ensure that thick forests flourished, always clean the interior and exterior of the plant, and, thus, give the plant, a valuable asset to the people, to posterity.”5
Some of this emphasis on workplace hygiene and beautification may have resulted from the apparent growing concerns of workers and nearby residents over increased incidents of illness (see “Environmental and Health Issues” below). Eight months after his October 1988 visit, Kim Jong-il undertook a tour of Chagang Province in June 1999. At that time, he was reported to have visited the “Amnokgang Tire Plant…Manpo City Kosan Cooperative Farm, and Manpo Sericulture Farm.”6 Although not specifically reported at the time, he is believed to have also visited the Manpo Unha Factory for a second time.7
Ten years later, in February 2009, Kim Jong-il was reported to have visited Manpo to provide “field guidance to various units.” Although not specifically stated, it is believed that he again visited the Manpo Unha Factory during this trip.8 Seven months later, a satellite image acquired on September 1, 2009, shows that a major modernization project was underway at the Manpo Unha Factory and that it had begun earlier that year. About a year later, on September 12, 2010, Kim Jong-il revisited the factory as the first phase of the modernization project was nearing completion to provide “field guidance.”9
“After being briefed on the factory in front of a huge map showing its panoramic view, he went round the exterior and interior of the rebuilt factory to acquaint himself in detail with the technological updating and production there.
After walking round the production processes, he expressed great satisfaction over the fact that the workers of the factory modernized and scientized it on the basis of the latest technology and brought about a dramatic turn in the production in a short span of time through the active development of new technology. He highly praised them for having completed the difficult and complicated project for technological updating requiring high technology.
The officials and technicians of the factory put overall production processes on a CNC [computer numerical control] basis through close creative cooperation with teachers and researchers of Kim Ch’aek University of Technology and completed a Korean-style integrated automation system on this basis, thereby radically changing the appearance of the factory and significantly boosting the production while economizing lots of raw and other materials in a few years, he said.
…He appreciated the devoted service rendered by the workers of the factory for improving the standard of people’s living.
Making the rounds of supply service facilities including the canteen and the bean processing shop newly built by the factory, he expressed great satisfaction over the good living conditions provided to the workers. He said that everything including production is going on well at the factory as it is supported by good supply service.”10
The establishing of a modernization project at the Manpo Unha Factory and Kim’s visit near the completion of the project’s first phase at the factory are clear indications of the factory’s importance. Notable in the reporting of these visits are the repeated references to living conditions, improving the standards of living, and the construction of new service facilities for workers, likely related to ongoing worker and resident concerns over health issues being caused by the factory.
Environmental and Health Issues
The production of chemicals at the Manpo Unha Factory has apparently not been without its human and environmental costs, as various sources discuss the environmental and health impact of the factory on the workers and local populace. One of the better, albeit brief, descriptions of these issues was published in 1999. At that time, the South Korean Ministry of Unification’s Intelligence Analysis Bureau (통일부정보분석국) discussed the factory in a publication about North Korea titled “북한개요” [Overview of North Korea],
“In the case of Jagang Province, where factories such as Manpo-si’s Unha Factory, produces liquid chemical fuels, of the 25,000 residents, about 10,000, or 40%, suffer from diseases such as hepatitis, liver cirrhosis, liver cancer, and cirrhosis. Furthermore, North Korean defectors claim that female workers at Unha No. 14 Factory suffer from side effects such as infertility, miscarriage, and birth defects due to environmental problems.”11
Despite the reported efforts to improve health and environmental conditions during the 1990s and the subsequent modernization project, it is likely that many issues remain to this day.
The Manpo Unha Factory is located 4.9 kilometers southwest of the city of Manpo (만포) on the eastern slopes of Kamto-bong (감토봉, Kamto Peak) in an approximately 6.5-kilometers-long valley with a stream and railroad spur line running down its center. This valley contains the four small villages or hamlets of Pyorojung-dong (별오중동), Sagi-dong (사기동), Sonong-dong (서농동), and Chombau (점바우), and the Unha Rail Station (Unha-yok (운하역).12
The entrance to the Manpo Unha Factory is located about 2.75 kilometers up the valley at Sagi-dong and includes the Unha Rail Station, from which it derives its public name.
The factory encompasses approximately 2.4 square kilometers and is distributed along both sides of the upper valley and two smaller branch valleys. The first branch valley is located approximately 530 meters to the south of the entrance and generally runs west, and the second is located approximately 800 meters to the south of the entrance and generally runs east.
Running down the center of each valley are small unnamed streams—several of which have been improved with the addition of concrete banks to channel storm and spring runoff waters. Most of the area encompassed by the factory consists of unoccupied mountains and small agricultural activities that support the factory and the nearby villages. Most of the latter apparently house factory workers or support personnel.
The factory consists of the headquarters and support area, an electrical substation, an electrolysis building, five probable production plants, a revetted mixing/filling plant, numerous warehouse and support buildings, nine greenhouses, approximately eleven revetted explosives magazines in two separate areas, and what appears to be either a basement entrance to a warehouse or a bunker.13
The factory is connected to the national rail network by the 288-kilometer-long Manpo-Sunchon Rail line through the Unha Rail Station located within the factory. This rail line has been repeatedly upgraded since at least the early 1990s.14
There are seven antiaircraft artillery (AAA) battery positions within five kilometers of the factory. However, only one on a hill approximately 520 meters west of the factory entrance is in a position to protect it directly. The others are located around the city of Manpo. The nearest air facility is the Korean People’s Air Force’s Manpo-up Airfield. eight kilometers to the east-northeast. As it is dirt-surfaced and houses an An-2 transport unit, the airfield does not provide support to the Manpo Unha Factory.
Located in the hills approximately three kilometers east of the Manpo Unha Factory is a clearly delineated area that appears to be a historical memorial of some sort.
For ease of description, the factory has been divided into four geographic areas—northern, southern, eastern, and western.
This area encompasses the central valley from the village of Sagi-dong to just south of the electrolysis building, with the factory entrance and checkpoint at the center.
The earliest readily available high-resolution commercial satellite imagery of the Manpo Unha Factory was collected on October 4, 2002. This image shows several minor changes that occurred during the fourteen years since the September 30, 1984, image was collected. Among these were the razing or construction of small buildings, the razing of one of two storage tanks immediately west of the electrolysis building, and the razing of three large storage tanks on the hill above the production plant immediately south of the electrolysis building.
Much of this lack of change between 1984 and 2002 can be attributed to the combination of a sustained national economic crisis precipitated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, a series of unsound economic policies, the death of Kim Il-sung, and an extended period of droughts, floods, and famine during the 1990s known as the Arduous March. By the early 2000s, as the economic crisis began to ease, North Korea initiated a wide-ranging program to modernize the nation’s important chemical complexes, including the Manpo Unha Factory.
Outside and north of the entrance is the central section of the village of Sagi-dong, with worker housing, a cultural education hall slowly built between 2010-2020, and a monument built in 2009. Immediately inside the entrance and checkpoint are a headquarters, administration, and support area consisting of another monument and approximately eight buildings, one of which has a radio transmission tower. Immediately to the south, there is the electrical substation for the factory that receives its power from the Changja-gang Hydroelectric Power Plant (previously the Tongno-gang Hydroelectric Power Plant), 14 km to the southwest of the factory.15
Approximately 100 meters further south is a large building, identified in the 1980 CIA report as the “electrolysis building.”16 Available imagery shows that except for some minor changes, such as the razing of a second storage tank immediately west of the building between 2002 and 2005, nothing of significance would change here until 2009. On the east side of the railroad tracks, there is a small compound that appears to be a warehouse facility with some open-air storage.
As noted above, during February and September 2009, Kim Jong-il is reported to have visited Manpo Unha Factory and inspected the modernization project that had begun earlier in the year. The following year, on September 12, 2010, Kim again visited the factory as the first phase of the modernization project was nearing completion.
Three months later, a satellite image acquired on December 16, 2010, shows that the major elements of the first phase of this modernization project were largely complete. The most significant changes observable was the partial razing and rebuilding of the electrolysis building, including creating a large courtyard and replacing its roof. How this impacted the original function (i.e., electrolysis) of the building is unknown. Subsequently, as part of the second phase of the modernization project, construction of what appears to be a water filtration plant attached to the east side of the building took place during 2014-2016.17
Approximately 50 meters south of the electrolysis building is the first of approximately five production plants. This consists of about nine buildings (the most recent being built during 2014-2015), three peaked-roof tanks, and six vertical storage tanks (three larger storage tanks on the hill above this plant were razed before 2002). Directly east and across the electrolysis building access road is the Unha Rail Station, along with a revetted warehouse, wood shop, an engine house for railroad locomotives, and a greenhouse. One or two diesel locomotives are typically observed at the rail station or engine house. On at least two occasions, the specialized rail tank cars discussed above have been observed at the Unha Rail Station.
Except for the erection of several small monuments and several other minor developments (e.g., small buildings razed or built, etc.) typical of rural North Korean factories, no developments of significance have been observed in the northern section of the Manpo Unha Factory since 2016. To date, the entire area is generally well- maintained by North Korean standards and is operational, although some roofs are in need of repair.
This area encompasses the southern third of the central valley, beginning approximately 1,300 meters south of the electrolysis building and then up the valley to the agricultural village of Chombau.
The declassified KH-9 satellite from September 30, 1984, shows that the factory’s expansion into this area appears to have not yet begun in earnest, and a small number of agricultural fields around Chombau.
The first high-resolution commercial satellite high-resolution image collected on October 4, 2002, shows that during the intervening years, what appears to be a revetted mixing/filling plant consisting of six revetted explosives magazines, two non-revetted buildings, and one large and one small storage tank had been built. Additionally, there were now several small buildings at Chombau. Subsequently, these small buildings were razed and replaced by a single large structure in 2014 to support increasing agricultural activity.
As of March 2023, the revetted mixing/filling plant, support buildings, and six revetted explosives magazines are all being maintained and appear operational. Except for the razing of one of these six revetted explosives magazines during 2012-2013, the construction of four small storage tanks, and several other minor developments (e.g., new roofs, construction of a small fish farm in 2020, etc.), nothing of significance has been observed in the southern section of the Manpo Unha Factory since 2002.
The eastern area of the factory is the largest and most developed, consisting of:
- Three production plants
- A shipping tank storage and filling facility
- Two warehouse/support areas
- A revetted explosives magazine facility
This irregularly shaped area extends up the central valley from 250 meters to 2,000 meters south of the electrolysis building and then approximately 1,600 meters east up a branch valley. At approximately 700 meters up this branch valley, a second branch valley extends approximately 1,100 meters to the southeast.
The declassified KH-9 satellite from September 30, 1984, shows that construction of the factory had generally expanded both north to south and west to east across this area to include a revetted explosives magazine facility (identified in the March 1980 CIA report as “explosives storage area”). The image collected on October 4, 2002, shows that except for the razing of three storage tanks above the shipping tank storage and filling facility and the addition of three storage tanks on the east side of the Unha Rail Station (probably for diesel fuel storage) no changes of significance appear to have occurred. Subsequently, during the next 21 years, numerous minor and major changes occurred across the area that has somewhat changed the size and shape of the area facilities and areas as detailed below.
Moving from north to south up the central valley, there are three primary facilities, a shipping tank storage and filling facility, and two production plants. The shipping tank storage and filling facility consists of six buildings, with shipping tanks often seen laid out around the building and along both sides of the factory’s main access road. On a few occasions, the specialized rail tank cars have been observed at this facility. Sometime between 2016 and 2018, a partially covered 30-meter-long rail-served loading dock was built at the south end of the facility. In 2020, this was razed, and a larger loading/storage building was constructed. This 70-meter-long building was completed in 2021. Then, in mid-2022, the main access road was shifted slightly to the west, and construction of a second storage building was begun 25 meters to the south of the existing one. This new building is 90 meters long, and while it has a truck loading dock, as of January 2023, it has not been completed and has no rail connection.
As of March 2023, the shipping tank storage and filling facility is being maintained, although some roofs need repair and appear operational.
Further to the south are the two production plants. Only occasional activity has been observed at both plants in the past ten years. This activity has primarily revolved around the razing of various components of these plants and the occasional storage of shipping tanks. This suggests that both these plants are either operating in a very limited capacity or have been effectively abandoned.
Moving from west to east up the eastern valley, there are four primary facilities, two warehouse/support areas, a production plant, and a revetted explosives magazine facility. This area serves as the Manpo Unha Factory’s primary warehouse and storage area.
The first warehouse/support areas consist of approximately 22 structures of various types, two greenhouses, and a storage tank installation of five tanks. As the second phase of Kim Jong-il’s modernization project continued through 2014, four buildings (including two new greenhouses) were built or expanded within this area. The area is operational and being maintained. No changes of significance have been observed here since 2014.
Adjacent and on the east side of the warehouse/support area is a production plant comprising approximately 12 structures and nine storage tanks of different types. There are also two concrete blast walls along the production plant protecting buildings on the north side of the road. As of March 2023, this plant appears to be operational, and no changes of significance have been observed here during the past ten years.
Further east up the valley is the second warehouse/support area consisting of approximately 12 structures of various types and what appears to be a small entrance to the basement of a warehouse or bunker. Five of these warehouse/storage structures in this area were built between 2009 and 2015 as part of the second phase modernization project. This area is operational and being maintained. No changes of significance have been observed here since 2015.
Immediately east of the production plant, a second branch valley extends approximately 1,100 meters to the southeast. This entire branch valley serves as a revetted explosives magazine facility (identified in the March 1980 CIA report as an “explosives storage area”), consisting of eight structures—all revetted to some degree. This facility has remained active since 2002, as is indicated by ongoing maintenance of its access road and buildings (e.g., roof repairs). Except for minor agricultural activity on the surrounding hills, no changes of significance have been observed in any of the available satellite images.
The western area extends 1,300 meters southwest from the electrolysis building up a branch valley west to the agricultural village of Sonong-dong.
The declassified KH-9 satellite from September 30, 1984, shows two large buildings—identified as “lead chamber sulfuric acid plants” in the 1980s CIA report—and a large storage tank 250 meters south of the electrolysis building, a small number of support-type buildings in the valley, and the presence of a small number of agricultural support buildings and cultivated fields around Sonong-dong.
The high-resolution commercial satellite imagery collected on October 4, 2002, shows that in the 18 years since 1984, minor changes occurred in this area, including the addition of a second storage tank south of the electrolysis building. Both, however, appeared to be abandoned. The agricultural support provided by Sonong-dong also increased with the addition of several agricultural buildings and several fishponds.
Subsequent satellite imagery shows several small developments have taken place, including the razing or construction of small support buildings, the addition of a second liquid storage tank between the two large buildings during 2009-2010, the movement of overhead pipes, and changes to agriculture-related buildings (e.g., the fishpond being replaced by a greenhouse during 2020-2010 and a second greenhouse built during 2010-2012). The area is operational and being maintained.
|Manpo (만포)||41.154722, 126.289444|
|Kanggye-yok (강계역)||40.970025, 126.581064|
|Namyang-yok (남양역)||39.834608, 125.668394|
|Yongbyon-yok (영변역)||39.801667, 125.738056|
|Kujang Railyard (구장역)||39.870325, 126.022527|
|Huichon-yok (희천역)||40.170863, 126.284088|
|Unha-yok (운하역)||41.113886, 126.265003|
|Pyorojung-dong (별오중동)||41.128056, 126.257778|
|Sagi-dong (사기동)||41.116944, 126.261944|
|Sonong-dong (서농동)||41.106389, 126.252500|
|Chombau (점바우)||41.096111, 126.271111|
|Kamto-bong (감토봉)||41.113056, 126.239722|
|Manpo Unha Factory (만포은하공장)||41.115211, 126.261457|
The authors would like to thank Steven Painter, a Korea Chair Intern, for his dedicated work in preparing the image map of the Manpo Unha Factory.
- The title “Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center” is used throughout this report although some knowledgeable individuals indicate that the proper name is “Yongbyon Nuclear Scientifc Research Center.” ↩
- Central Intelligence Agency. Imagery Analysis Monthly Review, March 1980, Declassified, https://www.cia.gov/readingroom/docs/CIA-RDP80T00913A000300530001-8.pdf. ↩
- “Half-Year Targets Fulfilled in Many Plants,” KCNA, June 5, 1990. ↩
- Ibid., “Grand Chollima march under guidance of Kim Jong Il,” KCNA, November 2, 1999; “Energetic on-the-spot guidance,” KCNA, November 14, 1998; “Kim Chong-il Guides Works in Manp’o,” KCBS, October 22 1998; “Kim Jong Il visits Manpho,” KCNA, October 23, 1998; “General Secretary Kim Jong Il Visits Manpho,” KCNA, October 23, 1998; “Kim Chong-il Guides Works in Manp’o,” KCBS, October 22, 1998; and Yi Su-kun “Following Our General’s Footprints, A New Legend Implanted in Huich’on and Manp’o,” Nodong Sinmun, October 27, 1998, p 2. ↩
- “Kim Chong-il Guides Works in Manp’o,” KCBS, October 22 1998. ↩
- “Production Increase in July Reported,” Minju Choson, July 30, 1999, p. 1, and Osamu Eya, Great Illustrated Book of Kim Chong-il (Tokyo: Shogakkan, 2000), pp. 174-1z. ↩
- Interview data acquired by Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. and “Year marked by leader’s endless on-spot guidance,” KCNA, December 9, 1999. ↩
- Ibid.; and “Kim Jong Il Gives Guidance at Sites in Manp’o,” KCNA, February 28, 2009. ↩
- “Kim Jong Il Gives Field Guidance to Manpho Unhwa Factory,” KCNA, September 12, 2010; “N. Korea’s Kim May Be Continuing Inspection Outside Capital,” Kyodo, September 12, 2010; “N. Korean Leader Appears in Public After China Trip,” Yonhap. September 15, 2020; “Let Us Go Straight,” Rodong Sinmun, September 17, 2010; “Kim Jong Il Enjoys Performance Given by Female Brass Band of Korean People’s Internal Security Forces,” KCNA, September 20, 2010; and Jeremy Laurence, “North Korea ruling party to hold leadership meeting,” Reuters, September 20, 2010, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-korea-north-conference/north-korea-ruling-party-to-hold-leadership-meeting-idUKTRE68J4RL20100920. ↩
- Interview data acquired by Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. and “Kim Jong Il Gives Field Guidance to Manpho Unhwa Factory,” KCNA, September 12, 2010. ↩
- “북한개요 (Overview of North Korea),” 통일부정보분석국 (Ministry of Unification Intelligence Analysis Bureau), December 1999, https://lib.uniedu.go.kr/libeka/elec/00055667.pdf; the following sources also identify Manpo Unha Factory as a chemical factory and connect it to environmental impacts in the area: “북한의 환경오염 현황 (North Korea’s Environmental Pollution Status),” Korea Federation for Environmental Movements, August 28, 2001, http://kfem.or.kr/?p=18362; “북한의 환경오염 (North Korea’s Environmental Pollution),” KBS, March 19, 2006, https://office.kbs.co.kr/tongil/archives/4329; 박순애 (Sun-Ae Park), “북한의 환경문제와 폐기물 정책에 관한 시론적 연구 (A Preliminary Study on North Korea’s Environmental Problems and Waste Policies),” 한국정책과학학회보 (Journal of Korean Association for Policy Sciences, 11-7,) December 2007, p. 275-294, https://www.unilaw.go.kr/data1/fileupload/A/20130423/META_A23961_201304231050286690. ↩
- While all of these are within generally discreet areas, Sagi-dong is not only centered within the main valley but also includes a collection of housing units in the hills one kilometer to the east. ↩
- The area designations and outlines used in this report should be viewed as provisional being used to ease the description of the factory for the reader. The same is true for the production plant names of “Electrolysis Building” and “sulfuric acid plants.” In this report the term “revetted explosives magazine” should be understood to be a protected storage structure that contains volatile chemicals, raw explosives, hazardous materials, or munitions. ↩
- For example: “Pyongyang Increases Spending on Railway Development,” KCNA, April 28, 1993; “Northern Railway Switched to Electric Traction,” KCNA, February 11, 1993; “Many Edifices Carry Word ‘Youth’,” KCNA, August 26, 1999; “Able Young Construction Unit,” KCNA, August 26, 1999; “2nd Grand Chollima March,” KCNA, August 24, 1999; and “철도” (Railroad), 북한정보포털 (Ministry of Unification North Korea Information Portal), 2022, https://nkinfo.unikorea.go.kr/nkp/overview/nkOverview.do. ↩
- The Changja-gang Hydroelectric Power Plant was previously called Tongnogang Hydroelectric Power Plant. The construction of the Tongno-gang Power Plant was begun by the Japanese but was never completed. After the Korean War it was completed by North Korea with the assistance of the former Soviet Union. It is the first underground power plant in North Korea and has a reported 90,000 kW from three turbines. The date when it was renamed to the Changja-gang Hydroelectric Power Plant is unclear. Interview data acquired by Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., and “Power Stations in Chagang Increase Production,” Minju Choson, May 28, 1995, p 1. ↩
- Central Intelligence Agency. Imagery Analysis Monthly Review, March 1980, Declassified, https://www.cia.gov/readingroom/docs/CIA-RDP80T00913A000300530001-8.pdf. ↩
- There has been some discussion as to precisely what this facility is, with some sources suggesting that this may be a fish farm or a cooling plant. Satellite imagery tends to disagree with these suggestions. ↩