A North Korean Rail Yard Near Russia Springs to Life

Recent commercial satellite imagery indicates goods have been delivered from Russia into North Korea’s heavily secured railway yard at Tumangang. In late November and early December, unloaded cargo has been observed sitting alongside trains at least twice. This activity comes about a month after the first train was observed crossing the bridge between the two countries in several years.

North Korea announced in September that it would resume rail traffic with Russia, which had been suspended for almost three years due to the pandemic. Based on this recent activity, trade between the two countries has resumed. The expanded freight handling area at Tumangang also indicates that the North anticipates an increased volume of goods compared to pre-COVID years and could become a more important partner in the future.

Figure 1. Overview of the Tumangang area on December 8, 2022.

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

Train 1

On November 29, an eight-car train (train 1) attached to a locomotive appears at the Khasan Station, which is the final Russian station before the North Korean border. Behind the locomotive, train 1 appears to have two grey-colored cars, two red cars, two more grey cars, a slightly lighter-colored grey car and a final brown car.

Figure 2. Train 1 visible at Khasan Station on November 29, 2022.

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A day later, on November 30, satellite imagery captures the same train inside the secure rail yard in Tumangang, North Korea. The same distinctive arrangement of rail cars remains, but the locomotive has departed.

Figure 3. Train 1 inside the secure rail yard in Tumangang on November 30, 2022.

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

The next morning, on December 1, the train has moved to the tracks adjacent to the rail yard, and the cars have been slightly reshuffled. What were the westernmost two cars are now on the eastern end of the train. The other six cars remain in the same order.

Figure 4. Train 1 moved to tracks adjacent to rail yard on December 1, 2022.

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

In the rail yard, five piles of goods are visible in an image taken at 10:36 a.m. (0136 UTC). A subsequent image taken at 2:27 p.m. (0527 UTC) shows the piles of goods are slightly smaller, which indicates they are being removed and suggests they were delivered by the train.

The eight railcars remain in position until at least the morning of December 3, and sometime between then and the morning of December 4, they are moved, and train 1 appears once again at Khasan Station in Russia.

Figure 5. Train 1 at Khasan Station on December 4, 2022.

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Train 2

On the morning of December 4 at 10:23 a.m. (0123 UTC), four new piles of goods can be seen in the rail yard at Tumangang. A second image taken at 2:14 p.m. (0514 UTC) shows the four piles still in place and four rail cars (train 2) parked on adjacent tracks.

Figure 6. New piles of goods and train 2 visible at Tumangang on December 4, 2022.

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

The same four rail cars are visible in Khasan Station on the afternoon of December 3 but are gone by the morning of December 4. In the 10:23 a.m. (0123 UTC) image, they do not appear to be in either Khasan or Tumangang, leaving a mystery as to their whereabouts between the afternoon of December 3 and their reappearance in Tumangang in the 2:14 p.m. (0514 UTC) image on December 4.

Figure 7. Train 2 visible at Khasan Station on December 3, 2022.

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

Train 3

On the morning of December 5, the goods are gone, but train 2 is still in place. It has remained in the same position through the most recent image on the morning of December 8. On that day, several additional rail cars (train 3) appeared alongside it.

Figure 8. Train 2 and train 3 alongside one another at rail yard on December 8, 2022. 

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

Train 3 also appears to have entered North Korea from Russia. Rail cars in the same colors and order are visible at Khasan Station in an image from the afternoon of December 7.

Figure 9. Train 3 at Khasan Station on December 7, 2022.

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Tumangang Rail Yard

The secure rail yard was constructed in the second half of 2021. In the same year, the Uiju Airfield on the opposite side of the country was converted into a massive quarantine station for goods from China. It had been assumed that the expansion at Tumangang was for the same reason, albeit on a smaller scale.

The rail yard is surrounded by fencing, and on the outside of the fencing, there are guard huts every 50 meters. Inside the secure area, there is a second layer of fencing around the two main areas of the rail yard and additional guard huts.

It is unclear whether the high security is due to the commodities passing through the facility or because of its proximity to the North Korean border. The facility sits about one kilometer from the Tumangang Friendship Bridge (Korea-Russia Friendship Bridge) railway crossing into Russia, and anyone managing to hide away on one of the trains would only have to endure a short ride until there were in Russia.

Figure 10. Overview of the Tumangang Rail Yard.

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

Conclusion

Based on our observations, it appears the resumption of trade between Russia and North Korea is well underway.

North Korea has also resumed trade with China by rail from Dandong into Sinuiju on the other side of the country. A massive quarantine center has been set up there where goods wait several months before leaving for the rest of the country.

Such a large quarantine area has not been set up in Tumangang, which suggests that the Russian border crossing is unlikely to receive as much cargo as the Chinese rail brings in, but it is another sign of North Korea’s slow opening up to the world as the COVID-19 pandemic lessens.

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