The creation of an advanced chemical industry in North Korea would allow it to reduce its dependence on foreign imports of oil, plastics, fertilizers and raw materials, and stimulate the domestic production of a large range of essential chemicals for industry and agriculture. The development of the C1 chemical industry is a high priority for Kim Jong Un, emphasized in his speeches since 2016.
The Sunchon Phosphate Fertilizer Plant (순천린비료공장), when it opened in May 2020, was touted as a significant step forward in this effort. Increasing domestic fertilizer production is particularly important these days, with prolonged border closures increasing the country’s dependence on domestic food production. However, questions have been raised about the operational status of the complex over the past two years, and recent commercial satellite imagery indicates that the main processing plant is likely not yet fully operational. These observations are consistent with statements by North Korean state media of ongoing problems at the plant.
Figure 1. Overview of Sunchon Phosphate Fertilizer Plant.
Signs of a slow start
In April 2021, a year after the factory opened, 38 North reported that production still appeared to be in its early stages.
While some raw materials such as ore and coal were delivered to the site, smoke – an indicator of ongoing operations on major processing components – was only observed in October 2020. campaign results one day of production that year. Such reports generally herald production successes in large factories; omitting this demo plant, but confirmed issues.
Admission of problems
In July 2021, two state media reports confirmed operational issues at the plant.
The first, in Arirang Meari, revealed that scientists from the Institute of Inorganic Chemistry of the Hamhung branch of the state Academy of Sciences had been sent to the plant to try to solve problems preventing full production. .
In the process of producing fertilizer, a mineral containing phosphate is treated with sulfuric acid, resulting in phosphoric acid. Phosphoric acid is then converted to ammonium phosphate with urea. It seems that the problem exists in the last step of this process, although this should generally be a simple and well-established step.
When the factory opened, signage on the site indicated that the factory used two different processes for the production of fertilizers: a wet process and a dry process. The problem could lie in either of these processes, and it is possible that North Korean researchers are using a non-standard or new process.
Whatever the reason, later that same month, Prime Minister Kim Tok Hun visited the factory as part of a trip to the Sunchon region. A state media report on his visit concluded with a single line reporting that Kim “discussed and took action to resolve overall issues related to the standardization of production at the Sunchon Phosphate Fertilizer Plant. “.
Since the revelations, the media has remained silent on the work at the plant while reporting that other plants, including the Namhung Youth Chemical Complex and the Hungnam Fertilizer Complex, are meeting or exceeding production targets.
Satellite Imagery Clues
Satellite imagery collected over the summer and winter of 2021 indicated some activity at the site throughout this period, including the movement of raw materials and smoke emissions from each of the main areas of production of the complex.
However, activity was below the level expected for a continuously operating plant. Although the smoke indicated that each of the major components of the production process worked, they don’t appear to have worked at the same time. For example, on December 17, the shadow of smoke from a stack in the main processing area is clearly visible, but there is no visible smoke from other stacks.
On December 3, an image taken after a recent snowfall revealed that the roof of the main processing building remained covered in snow. If production had taken place, internal heat generation would have caused at least some snowmelt, especially since other buildings around the main production area were showing snowmelt.
The roads around most of the site have been plowed; however, it seemed to be still going on on the south side of the complex around the ore piles. One of the ore piles showed signs of use, although vehicle tracks pointed towards a large building that stands alone on the site rather than the main production area.
Figure 2. Close-up of main processing and production areas covered in snow.
On December 3 and 17, a set of tank cars was parked alongside a building in the main production area. Tank cars are used to bring necessary chemicals such as sulfuric acid and ammonium. It’s possible they were moved and put back in the same place, but if they haven’t moved (which is more likely), that’s further evidence of the low level of activity at the site.
Other fertilizer plants
Although the Sunchon fertilizer factory is not yet operating at full capacity, the state has continued to press for increased production at the country’s other two main fertilizer production sites: the fertilizer complex of Hungnam and Namhung Youth Chemical Complex.
In July 2021, state media reported that both factories had met their production quotas for the season. A month later, work began to expand production at the Hungnam Fertilizer Complex, and an October report indicated that a new ammonia production process had been completed. In December, Prime Minister Kim Tok Hun called for a further increase in production at the Namhung Youth Chemical Complex during a site visit. On January 6, 2022, state media reported that Hungnam Fertilizer Complex was already working to meet the production targets set at the recent party plenary meeting.
In addition to the technical problems encountered in the main fertilizer production facilities in the North, the country still depends on the import of several raw materials for the production of fertilizers, such as urea. A global shortage of urea coupled with North Korea’s continued border closures are just some of the new challenges North Korea faces in trying to increase its self-sufficiency.
Additional research by Joanne Lee.