Waste management in the DPRK

UPDATE: Lots of additional helpful information in the comments section at the bottom of this post.

ORIGINAL POST: It is not glamorous, but it is interesting–and largely unexplored.

In all the time I have spent visiting or investigating the DPRK I have been curious about how they handle waste management and sanitation.  There is not much written on the subject (other than periodic reports that people collect their solid waste for fertilizer, or that school kids were sent out to collect it during the Arduous March), so I thought I would kick off a discussion about the topic and if any readers can point out more information, I would appreciate it.

Where does the garbage go?
On my second trip to the DPRK, I saw a garbage incinerator next to the Moranbong Middle School.


Click on the image above for a larger version.  The garbage incinerator is in the lower left corner. A satellite image showing its location is here. It is awkwardly placed next to the school and a children’s playground, and it is probably for use by residents of the nearby apartment block.  Maybe this is under the control of the building inminban.  After seeing it, however, I assumed that residents of Pyongyang simply burned their trash in similar facilities all across the city—but I never saw another incinerator in Pyongyang or any other city I visited. Later I was told by some defectors that garbage was collected (for some anyway–I don’t have any details) and that garbage is buried in actual landfills.  Since the DPRK is a poor country, we can expect the level of garbage to be lower than in neighboring countries, but in all the thousands of hours I have spent looking at North Korea on Google Earth, I never saw an easily identifiable landfill…until March of this year.  Below is both the largest (and only) landfill I have identified in the DPRK:


The coordinates are  37°57’12.80″N, 125°21’36.11″E in Ongjin (South West).  It is approximately 33 meters in diameter at its widest point.  There is no telling what is in there or how well it is sealed off from the local water table.  If any former residents of Ongjin happen to see this post and can fill in the details, please let me know.

One highly-qualified reader asserts that there is no way this could be a landfill, but has no idea what it could be.  If anyone else has a hypothesis about this location, please let me know.

Sewage Investments:
I have also been cataloging sewage and water treatment facilities across the DPRK.  Not surprisingly, there are few to be found.  The largest facility, however seems to be under construction north of Pyongyang.  It has been under construction since approximately August 2005 and it is still not complete.  It is located at  39° 7’6.80″N, 125°46’20.87″E, and here are some photos of its development:




Thanks to a tip from Michael we can also see the crumbling of the Phyongchon District (Pyongyang) sewage plant:



Kuwait was reported to be lending the DPRK $21m to update its water and sewage facilities. The indispensable Stalin Search engine has more on Kuwait and the DPRK.

So if anyone knows of any papers, etc. on sanitation in the DPRK, please let me know.


9 Responses to “Waste management in the DPRK”

  1. milton says:

    Sort of unrelated but…

    What is the best way to identify these kinds of structures in the DPRK? Are there
    any guidebooks or anything like that?

    By the way, do you know you made the cover of the Joongang Ilbo?

  2. Michael says:

    During a visit in 2008 I had the opportunity to see and discuss with experts Pyongyang utility services:
    There is another treatment plant for the South at
    38°59’58.93″N 125°42’48.47″E
    I visited this in 2008 and found it approx. 95% dysdunctional (old Soviet machinery which is being canibalized).
    I also visited the site in the north, already “under construction” at that time. There were however only very limited construction activities going on, only manual labour, no machinery to be seen.
    I came to the conclusion that there is a very strong health hazard through leaks in both s ystems, waste – and drinking water, as both pipe systems are in a very bad state of repair.
    Most serious: There is no monitoring of drinking water quality, due to lack of lab equipment and testing chemicals!
    With regard to waste: Waste consits largely of biomass which is left to rot. Whatever (very) little other waste there is, is simply dug in or burnt. Incineration was never mentioned to me!
    I even asked about dangerous wastes such as hospital waste and was given the impression that this was all just dug in (again no surprise with the fuel shortages!)

  3. Michael says:

    Whatever that is, close to Ongjin, it has no characteristics at all of a landfill!

  4. NKeconWatch says:


    I have a couple of guides on identifying facilities, but they are mostly limited to military equipment. They are posted on this web page for you to download. I have learned how to identify locations mostly through research and trial and error. There is no short cut of which I am aware. I have not seen the Joongang Ilbo…

    Michael, If it is not a landfill, do you have any ideas what is could be? It looks like the landfill up the road from me: http://wikimapia.org/#lat=26.7644642&lon=-80.1369381&z=16&l=0&m=b

  5. James says:

    While at the film studios in 2008, I went into the bushes for a pee (with official permission). I just went down a little slope behind the buildings into the trees. The whole embankment was full of garbage for several meters. The people at the film studio obviously used this as their landfill. What otherwise looked like a nice treed area was upon closer inspection a dumping ground. I would suspect that other areas of Pyongyang are similar, with garbage disposal being based on what is immediately convenient and hidden from immediate view.

  6. milton says:

    There ya are:


    Includes your picture as well. Screenshots from North Korean uncovered showing a tunnel at the Pipagot Naval Base were featured right below the masthead. According to the article, the first Korean word you learned was “American Imperialism.”

  7. NKeconWatch says:

    Michael…great information. Thanks for that.

  8. Michael says:

    Yes, what you show us here http://wikimapia.org/#lat=26.7644642&lon=-80.1369381&z=16&l=0&m=b
    is a landfill in the US, high-tech and highly organized, very well sealed and covered, drainage……
    Most unlikely that you find anything like that in NK! The location too is a VERY unlikely one! There is simply not enough population or larger industry around and you can not expect that they transport waste over any long distance (they do not have “Garbage trucks”!)
    Still I have not the slightest idea what it actually could be!

  9. Enzo says:

    can you give me more information? in spanish, please!!