About the Author
Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
North Korean efforts to reconstruct parts of the Sohae Satellite Launch Facility are continuing, imagery of the area dated March 8 shows, despite Kim Jong Un’s pledge to Donald Trump to dismantle parts of the site last year in Singapore.
The latest imagery, published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on Saturday, follows similar findings posted earlier last week at both the CSIS and 38 North websites, which also drew attention to North Korean construction activities at the facility.
“Commercial satellite imagery acquired on both March 6 and March 8, 2019, shows that North Korea has continued preparations on the launch pad and the vertical engine test stand at the Sohae Launch Facility,” the CSIS report said on Saturday.
In particular, CSIS drew attention to a rail-mounted transfer/processing structure which had been moved over an underground rail transfer point that can be used to collect clandestinely delivered rocket components.
In addition, the report noted that environmental panels had been installed again on the vertical test engine stand superstructure, with a rail-mounted environmental shelter also assembled and positioned adjacent to the test stand.
Notably, the CSIS report comes just a day after the ArmsControlWonk website said that new activity at the Second Academy of Natural Sciences in Sanum-dong — observed in Planet.com satellite imagery — suggested that North Korea may be preparing for a space launch.
“Satellite images taken by Digital Globe on February 22 show that there has been vehicle activity at both the production facility at Sanum-dong and at the nearby rail transfer point that serves the facility,” the analysis said.
Activities at the Saunm-dong area were therefore observed prior to the Hanoi summit, raising questions as to whether Pyongyang might have been taking steps there and at the Sohae facility to increase leverage in negotiations or to actually proceed with plans for a satellite launch.
Overall, NK Pro analyst Ankit Panda said that recent satellite imagery showed a “full-blown effort” to reconstitute dismantled structures at the Sohae facility, with activities at Sanum-dong making “it likelier that North Korea may be serious about potentially proceeding with a launch.”
“It’s possible still that all of this is designed to be a highly visible form of coercive diplomacy that may work insofar as it continues to generate headlines raising the prospect of renewed North Korean launch activity, even if its not of ICBMs or other ballistic missiles,” he added.
And Panda said there are “strong reasons for North Korea to withhold from actually proceeding with a launch.
“They would lose much accrued political capital and it would be more difficult for China and Russia, which have demonstrated some support for UN sanctions relief, to continue to support relief measures after such an event,” he said.
And U.S. President Donald Trump is another leader who would also be unhappy if Pyongyang went ahead with any launch activity at Sohae.
“I would be very disappointed if that were happening,” Trump told reporters on Wednesday when asked about signs of construction at the Sohae facility.
“I would be very, very disappointed in Chairman Kim.”