Watching North Korea from above

The most recent Google Earth imagery update included some images of Pyongyang dated April 22 and April 23, 2017. It’s a pity they weren’t from a week earlier as North Korea celebrated its 105th anniversary on April 15 with a spectacular march past. There was another march for Army Day on April 25th.

We also came across a story that highlights the dangers of trying to interpret satellite imagery without sufficient background information. There was a story that was published by a number of media outlets that said that North Korea appeared to be building artificial islands with military installations on them. A parallel was drawn with China’s island building efforts in the South China Sea. However, a quick look at the locations mentioned in the story reveals that the islands in question are not artificial. Then the website 38 North published this article, essentially debunking the entire story. It turns out the islands and related construction are just part of a land reclamation project, not unlike many others along North Korea’s coasts. We can see it being constructed starting in 2011 using Google Earth’s Landsat/Sentinel-2 mosaics:

Land reclamation wall being constructed.


Not far to the west there is a similar wall that has been there since at least 1984 (the oldest available imagery). Below we show the extent of land reclamation behind the sea wall:


‘Before and after’ showing land reclamation in North Korea 1984 to 2016.

Another interesting story from 38 North is this one, where they spotted North Koreans apparently playing volley ball near the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. Unfortunately, that imagery has not made it into Google Earth.

For the locations above and some outlines of 2017 imagery, download this KML file.

About Timothy Whitehead

Timothy has been using Google Earth since 2004 when it was still called Keyhole before it was renamed Google Earth in 2005 and has been a huge fan ever since. He is a programmer working for Red Wing Aerobatx and lives in Cape Town, South Africa.


  1. ben reuter says:

    That is a major problem when selecting new new images!
    You need to have guys which keep themself informed and got this sort of sensibility to seek (in the Digital Globe fundus) for interesting events and the right date!
    I remember that we had a great shot of a Space Shuttle on a trailer when driving through Los Angeles a couple of years ago!
    Digital Globe published it…Google never took notice and even didn’t fit it into the History Layer.
    Selecting images would be the ideal job for people like us!
    But no one ask us 🙂

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