Satellites uncover North Korea

By Adrian Brown
BBC News

North Korea is one of the most secretive states in the world. Its citizens cannot travel abroad and have little, if any, contact with those who visit their country. The few tourists who do make it are carefully herded to a handful of destinations and rarely get off the beaten track.

Yet, thanks to satellite imagery and the internet, North Korea's secretive world is gradually being unveiled. Here is a series of remarkable photographs showing aspects of North Korea's hidden world that are rarely seen by outsiders, as well as some unusual views of more familiar sights.

North Korea's elite family compounds
Elite housing compound believed to be used by North Korean leader Kim Jong-il
Image: DigitalGlobe

Kim Jong-il
Kim Jong-il

This image shows an elite residential compound to the north of the capital Pyongyang. North Korea's founder, Kim Il-sung, lived there and it is believed that his son, Kim Jong-il - the country's current leader - has a residence there. As well as the large houses and well-tended gardens, there is a swimming pool in the upper left hand corner, complete with water slide.

Out of shot, it is also possible to see that the compound has its own dedicated train line that seems to run into a tunnel underneath the area. A long time North Korea watcher, Dr Hazel Smith, says it's difficult to know where Kim Jong-il lives as, public appearances aside, his activities are shrouded in secrecy. "These look similar to some of the diplomatic compounds I've seen which also have swimming pools. The party people live in the city proper, whereas this is clearly outside the city as there are so many trees," she said.

Water slide can be seen on the right hand side of the pool (Image: DigitalGlobe)
Water slide can be seen on the right hand side of the pool

Curtis Melvin, an American economist who has compiled a catalogue of detailed satellite images of North Korea, says sources within the country confirmed this location as being used by Kim Jong-il. "There are houses like this everywhere. At one point, there was a residence in every province. There are lots on the coast. Most of the nice roads in the country are built up to the gates of these compounds," he says.

Life for most of North Korean's 23 million people is harsh. North Korea's economy went into steep decline during the 1990s after the collapse of communism elsewhere. Though the economy has recovered to an extent, thanks to greater co-operation with South Korea and some small scale market reforms, living standards and output remain far below the levels of the 1990s. Another factor that holds back the economy is the significant share of GDP that is spent on the military.

Taedongang brewery
The Taedong Brewery in Pyongyang houses what used to be Ushers Brewery in Trowbridge, UK.
Image: DigitalGlobe

The distinctive entrance to the brewery
The distinctive entrance to the brewery

This unprepossessing building houses the Taedongang brewery on the outskirts of the North Korean capital. It was once the Ushers Brewery in Trowbridge in the UK. It was bought from the owners in 2000 and dismantled on site in a matter of weeks by a team of North Koreans and British engineers. It was shipped over to North Korea and was up and running 18 months later. But rather than traditional ale, it now brews a variety of lagers.

"The North Koreans, like the Japanese, like their beer," says Dr Smith who is Professor of Resilience and Security at Cranfield University. But as sanctions have taken their toll, the key ingredients for brewing are not always available. "The chaff from the harvest is used in brewing. Nothing is wasted," says Dr Smith.

Brewing kettles inside the brewery today
Brewing kettles inside the brewery today

Curtis Melvin says he located the brewery "after a tourist sent in a picture of the entry gate which is a very unusual shape. From the air it looks like a large M which I matched to a photograph from an official publication."

He says the lager he tried when he was last in Pyongyang "had a full flavour" but others are less palatable. "Ryesong beer is pretty awful, leaving a distinct metallic taste," he says, adding: "In the capital, they drink a lot of beer but outside in the countryside, they prefer their traditional spirit drinks."

North Korean television recently broadcast an advert for Taedong River Beer. Dubbed the "Pride of Pyongyang", the advert showed young women in traditional Korean dress serving trays of beer to men in western suits. Kim Jong-il visited the brewery in 2002 where he "(watched) good quality beer (come) out in an uninterrupted flow for a long while," according to North Korea's state news agency.

Ostrich farm
The ostrich farm just outside Pyongyang
Image: DigitalGlobe

Ostrich farming was introduced after North Korea's famine in the 1990s
Ostrich farming was introduced after North Korea's famine in the 1990s

This is an aerial view of an ostrich farm near Pyongyang. It's on the official tourist trail but it's not clear if this is a one-off or part of a network of such farms.

"Everybody knows about the ostrich farm," says Hazel Smith. "North Korea bought into propaganda that you could make money out of ostriches. I never saw anything in the way of ostrich meat when I was there," she says, adding: "The government never boasted about it and so I suspect it hasn't done that well."

Curtis Melvin says he tracked down the location after seeing a picture of the farm in an official North Korean publication. He says North Korea got into ostrich farming during the famine in the 1990s when between 500,000 and two million North Koreans are thought to have died from starvation.

North Korea continues to suffer widespread food shortages due to economic problems, limited arable land and lack of agricultural machinery and energy shortages. The UN World Food Programme estimates that almost nine million people are in need of food aid.

Juche Tower
Juche Tower, Pyongyang

A view of the Juche Tower from ground level
The Juche Tower from ground level

This is the Juche Tower, in central Pyongyang. It's 170 metres high and is one of the key landmarks in the capital. Just in front of the tower is a 30-metre-high classic communist statue featuring a peasant carrying a sickle, a worker with a hammer in his hand, and a third character, a "working intellectual" who is carrying a writing brush.

"It's a very nice area," says Dr Smith. "There's a light at the top of the tower which goes out at 10pm, when everyone goes to bed because they get up early and of course they need to save electricity. Lots of people go there on Saturday and Sunday. It's close to the river where people fish and people will go there to spend the afternoon."

Kim Jong-il is officially credited with designing the tower though the exact extent of his involvement is disputed. It is named after his father's own particular brand of political philosophy whose key tenets are self-reliance, isolationism, Korean traditionalism and Marxism-Leninism.

The tower is lined up directly with the statue of Kim Il-sung on Mansu Hill on the opposite side of the river. "The view is incredible," says Curtis Melvin who was also able to watch preparations for the traditional October parade during a 2005 visit. On that visit he describes how he had his picture taken in front of a couple of huge images of Kim Jong-il and his father, but was eventually chased away "by one of the men in charge of the training".

Kim Il-sung statue
Kim Il-sung monument, Pyongyang

A North Korean family poses in front of Kim Il-sung's statue
A North Korean family poses in front of Kim Il-sung's statue

This is a monument to North Korea's founder, Kim Il-sung, a massive 20-metre-high bronze statue. It stands on Mansu Hill in the capital and is a major tourist destination. When North Koreans visit the statue they bow before it and leave flowers as a mark of respect.

Flanking the statue, which is visible atop its white square plinth, are two giant stone replica flags. One is the North Korean flag, the other is that of the Workers Party of Korea. Arranged around the base of these structures - which in this picture are casting huge shadows - are some 200 almost life-size bronze statues of various military and civilian figures striking heroic poses. Behind the statue is the Korean Revolution Museum.

Erected in April 1972 to celebrate Kim Il-sung's 60th birthday, it was originally coated in gold but this was later removed apparently at the insistence of China, North Korea's chief benefactor. Similar, less grandiose, structures are located in over 70 major cities elsewhere in North Korea.

There is apparently just one statue of his son, Kim Jong-il. Lamps are supposed to shine on the statue from 10pm until 4am each day. It's also reported that dedicated bunkers have been built to house the statues in the event of war.

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific