Google Earth Provides Glimpse Into North Korea’s Latest Military Parade Preparation

In the past, North Korea has been a difficult state to analyze without sophisticated spying equipment, although commercial satellite imagery is starting to make the job a bit easier. With great blogs such as North Korean Economy Watch and sites like the U.S.-Korea Institute’s 38 North, increasing amounts of information on the country are being made openly available and easy to access without leaving your desk.

For those tech-savvy individuals, last year’s military parade in North Korea provided an important opportunity for intelligence officers and military enthusiasts alike to get a glimpse of the BM-25 Musudan and the KN-08, both most western experts believe to be non-operational.

Back in February, both missiles were also mentioned in the U.S. and foreign press during heightened tensions on the peninsula as potential threats to U.S. deployments in the region.

This year, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency has already published a report stating that more missiles have been sighted preparing for the military parade at Pyongyang’s Mirim Airport. This year’s parade is particularly special: It will commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the Korean War armistice agreement. As we’ve seen in the past, North Korea likes to show off its military equipment, whether in parades or actual launches on politically significant days, regardless of development.

According to a source featured in the Yonhap report,

“Satellite imagery showed Scud, Nodong and Musudan missiles installed on mobile launchers,” referring to the North’s short-, medium- and long-range ballistic missiles. “Considering the fact that nearly all ground force equipment was present, there is a possibility that its long-range KN-08 missiles could appear at the end of the parade.”

Although Yonhap did not provide their readership with any recent imagery upon which to salivate, Google Earth may be a good place to start to get a better look at North Korea’s preparation site.

Site Overview

A quick overview of the Mirim Airport points out a few significant areas. Starting from the top, we have the KPA Exhibition of Military Science and Technology whose construction in 2009 at this location was first reported by the North Korean Economy Watch last year. Immediately outside is a static display area which has at times played host to various vehicles and military equipment for inspections.

Next are the parade grounds. North Korea’s military equipment and personnel are routinely viewed every year practicing their drill and ceremony for the immense event that is North Korea’s military parade. While the parade grounds are outlined above, personnel often just march around everything in the general area, including the April 25 Hotel. That brings us to our next landmark.

According to a report from the Korean Central News Agency, the April 25 Hotel was built as a “monumental edifice in the era of the Workers’ Party.” This banal nationalistic project has a total floor space of 134,000 square meters and accommodation for 20,000 guests. Beyond reinforcing a sense of North Korea’s national identity, it functions to service military personnel and civilians who participate in military and civic events.

Last but not least is the designated shelter deployment site. In 2010, North Korea poured additional concrete for this area providing a smooth surface upon which to erect additional shelters to park more sensitive equipment taking part in the parade. In the same year, imagery captured what may be the first publicly available imagery sighting of the Musudan prior to the parade. Unfortunately, the low fidelity of the imagery makes this difficult to confirm. Nonetheless, this area is an important one to watch.

Latest Imagery

That said, the Google gods that decide when and if to push out new imagery, have seen fit to provide an update leading up to this year’s military parade. Unfortunately, it may have been too early to catch anything juicy.

In fact, it would appear that the shelter deployment site, i.e., the site used to house North Korea’s ballistic missiles had not yet been erected. Past imagery from 2012 shows the shelters in place two months prior to the parade, however we do not have a steady stream of publicly available imagery to determine if that’s typical. For the time being, we will just have to accept the Yonhap report.

In the meantime, let’s take a look at what is viewable there.

You will have to excuse all the arrows. I know it looks like that photoshopped image showing all of Iran’s Shahab-3s firing in every direction.

Despite North Korea’s missing missiles, imagery from May 8, 2013 shows an impressive sight of over twenty-eight military formations marching around the area. In the top image, ten formations of troops are leaving the April 25 Hotel and marching toward the parade grounds. In the bottom image, there are over eighteen formations in various sizes marching to and fro in straight lines practicing their drill and ceremony for the main event. At such a sight, it’s easy to see why the April 25 Hotel was built.

Lastly, there are several different types of military equipment on display which includes everything from North Korean tanks and armored personnel carriers to military trucks and towed artillery. At this point, the present formations were missing many of the diverse sets of equipment we are accustom to seeing in the parade, including last year’s various self-propelled artillery and multiple rocket launchers. These probably would have appeared with North Korea’s other tactical and strategic assets.

In summation, while this quick imagery overview of the Mirim Airport provides a small window into North Korea’s almost parallel world, satellite imagery in general can also be used to understand a great deal more about other developments. Many social scientists have been using imagery to track the growth of private agriculture in North Korea which is beginning to have a profound effect on the economy. Others may be watching ports, port projects, and the growth of special economic zones just to see how much North Korea relies on China and perhaps other actors. The point is, satellite imagery can be a great tool to provide added value to analysis, only if you know where to look. Perhaps this is a good time to leave you with the seemingly cheesy slogan of my former employer:

“Know the Earth, Show the Way”