First Traffic Observed on North Korea-Russia Railway Link in Several Years

A train crossed from North Korea into Russia on Friday afternoon, according to commercial satellite imagery. This is the first traffic observed on the route in several years. It is impossible to determine the purpose of the train from the imagery, but the crossing comes amid reports of arms sales from North Korea to Russia and a general expectation of the resumption of trade between the two countries.

The Only DPRK-Russia Land Connection

The 800-meter Tumangang Friendship Bridge (Korea-Russia Friendship Bridge) is the only land link between the two countries, and before the COVID-19 pandemic, it served a limited amount of rail traffic between Russia and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). North Korea closed the link in February 2020 as it shut its borders due to the pandemic.

In the second half of 2021, a freight-handling area just inside North Korea was rebuilt and expanded, although it has seen no apparent use to date. This portion of the rail yard consists of a new set of platforms and storage buildings, separately secured from the rest of the rail yard by a series of watch posts.

Figure 1. Overview of the Tumangang Friendship Bridge area on November 4, 2022.

Image © 2022 Planet Labs, PBC cc-by-nc-sa 4.0. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected]

Railcar Crossing

On Friday morning at 10:24 a.m. local time (0124 UTC), a three-car set of enclosed railcars was visible on one of the tracks alongside the freight handling area. The easternmost railcar is light blue, the second appears to be darker blue and the rear car is a reddish-brown color.

Figure 2. Close up of railcars alongside the freight handling area on November 4, 2022.

Image © 2022 Planet Labs, PBC cc-by-nc-sa 4.0. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected]

By 1:10 p.m. local time (0410 UTC), what appears to be the same three-car set of railcars was observed behind a locomotive inside Russia, about 200 meters from the end of the railway bridge. The train is close to the Korea-Russia Friendship House border crossing station.

Figure 3. Close up of railcars and locomotive on the Russian side of the border on November 4, 2022.

Image © 2022 Planet Labs, PBC cc-by-nc-sa 4.0. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected]

At 2:29 p.m. local time (0529 UTC), the locomotive and three railcars were visible on tracks at Khasan Station, approximately two kilometers from the border. On an adjacent track, three smaller covered railcars, or possible containers on flatcars, were parked alongside the newly arrived train. Whether a transfer of material was in progress could not be determined, and the parked locations of these train sets may have been unrelated.

The smaller railcars have been in position since at least the first image of the day was captured at 10:24 a.m. local time.

Figure 4. Close up of railcars, locomotive and smaller covered railcars at Khasan Station on the Russian side of the border on November 4, 2022.

Image © 2022 Planet Labs, PBC cc-by-nc-sa 4.0. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected]

Conclusion

The purpose of the train and what it might be transporting cannot be determined from the images. On Wednesday, White House National Security spokesperson John Kirby said that the US believes North Korea is sending shipments through the Middle East and North Africa in an attempt to disguise them.

While this is the first train observed on satellite imagery traveling between the DPRK and Russia, it does not mean it is the only train that has crossed in recent months. For instance, a train did apparently make the same journey earlier this week. The Russian Customs Agency reported that 30 horses were transported by rail from Russia to North Korea, but that shipment was not captured by satellites.

The resumption of cross-border traffic comes after the two countries agreed in September to restart rail traffic after nearly three years.

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