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Port City in Profile: Nampo, North Korea

Nampo Street, Nampo North Korea

PortandTerminal.com, April 24, 2019

North Korea does very little trade with the rest of the world so understandably, its ports don’t see much activity. The country’s largest port is the Port of Nampo, which as the MarineTraffic.com visual below shows, is the only one with any significant maritime traffic. The rest of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is eerily devoid of any activity at all.

The Port of Nampo is located 50 km southwest of Pyongyang and is North Korea’s largest port

For more than a dozen years world powers have pursued economic and financial sanctions on North Korea to pressure it to denuclearize.

During his first year in office, President Trump authorized the Treasury Department to block from the U.S. financial system any foreign business or individual that facilitates trade with North Korea as part of the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign.

Foreign financial institutions are now on notice that going forward, they can choose to do business with the United States or with North Korea, but not both

Steve Mnuchin, United States Secretary of the Treasury

These measures have exacted a heavy toll on the North Korean economy and its people. As the country’s main port, the sanctions on North Korea are felt most sharply in Nampo, the focus of this article.

Nampo, North Korea

Nampo City Centre

Nampo is the DPRK’s fourth largest city with a population of 367,000 people.

Originally a small fishing village, Nampo became a port for foreign trade in 1897, developing into a modern port in 1945 after World War II. Fishing though remains a significant part of the local economy accounting for about 9% of North Korea’s annual exports.

Worker at Nampo Glass Factory

Some of the city’s industrial facilities include the Nampo Smelter Complex, Glass Corporation, Shipbuilding Complex, Fishery Complex, and other central and local factories.

Nampo’s West Sea Barrage was built in 1986 at a cost of $4 billion and is a major source of pride for the DRPK

One of North Korea’s proudest accomplishments is the gigantic West Sea Barrage, which was completed in 1986 at a cost of $4 billion and is featured on one of the country’s banknotes. The huge seawall near the city of Nampo helps control flooding and reduce the amount of salt that seeps in from the ocean, increasing the amount and quality of arable land.

The people of Nampo

North Korean propaganda poster featuring Kim Il-sung, the founder of the DPRK and grandfather of its current leader Kim Jung-un

Life in Nampo is tougher than it is in Pyongyang, where the privileged few live.

Forty percent of North Korea’s 24 million people live below the poverty line. The standard of living has deteriorated to such extreme levels of deprivation that the average life expectancy has fallen by five years since early the 1980s.

Housing blocks in Nampo (Photo: Flickr, Raymond Cunningham)

Individuals cannot purchase apartments or houses. The government owns all real estate and allocates rights to occupy a home, free of cost. The location, size and quality of the home you are assigned depends upon your job.

An estimated forty percent of North Koreans are now addicted to methamphetamine

Due to the chronic lack of health care supplies and medical treatments in North Korea, many people take opiates and amphetamine-type stimulants which are perceived as medicinal alternatives. An estimated forty percent of North Koreans are now addicted to meth. There are recent press reports of managers handing out meth to construction workers to stimulate more productivity from them.

Not all work and no play though. A Nampo resident relaxes at a scenic beach near the city

The Port of Nampo

The Port of Nambo by most measures is a small, regional port with outdated infrastructure. The port can accommodate ships of 20,000 tons but is frozen during the winter.

We discourage ships that don’t have their own cranes. Only three of the five Nampo port cranes are even functional. The other two are being cannibalized for spare parts to keep those three operational.

Nampo is connected to the capital Pyongyang by both railway and a large expressway called the Youth Hero Highway (pictured below). The West Coast Fleet of the DPRK is also headquartered at Nampo.

The Youth Hero Highway connects the Port of Nampo with Pyongyang. There are an estimated 30,000 km of roads in North Korea of which only 5% are paved

The Nampo Shipyard Complex, is one of North Korea’s primary shipbuilding enterprises, building primarily cargo ships and fishing boats. Employing 7,000 workers, the facilities include drydocks, 19 cranes, various cutting machines and a 6,000-ton floating dock. Ships of up to 20,000 tons displacement can be built.

Dock No. 2, Port of Nampo

To truly understand Nampo though you need to look at import/export numbers for the DPRK. For a country of almost 25 million people, North Korea does staggeringly little trade with the rest of the world. In 2017, North Korea exported just $1.74B and imported $3.42B, resulting in a negative trade balance of $1.69B.

The Port of Nampo’s prospects are directly tied to the fortunes of its leader Kim Jung-un and his ability (or not) to have sanctions lifted on the DPRK. Until cargo starts moving again there is little room for optimism for the 367,000 North Koreans who call Nampo home.

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