Satellite imagery published on Monday by Joe Bermudez at 38 North provides a first look at ongoing site dismantlement activity at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station. This site, also known as Tongchang-ri, is where all North Korean space launches in the Kim Jong Un era, beginning with the April 2012 launch of the Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite on the Unha-3 launch vehicle, took place.

The dismantlement activity that Bermudez describes only partially has to do with North Korea’s space launch program; one of the dismantled sites appears to be the static liquid propellant engine vertical test stand that U.S. President Donald J. Trump announced as a North Korean concession at his press conference following his meeting with Kim on June 12 in Singapore.

“Chairman Kim says North Korea is also destroying a major missile engine testing site,” Trump said then, admitting that it wasn’t in the “signed document”—the so-called Singapore declaration between the two leaders. The North Korean side never confirmed any such pledge to dismantle an engine test site.

“We know where it is because of the heat,” Trump added then—an unnecessary flourish given how well-known and publicized the Sohae launch site is. In the end, Trump said that Kim had given him assurances that “he’s going to close it up.”

The imagery publicized on Monday gives us the first sign that North Korea is now looking to follow up on that pledge.

The test stand at Sohae has two core structural features. The first is a large concrete foundational structure; that remains in place. The second structural feature—a metal superstructure designed to accommodate large liquid propellant engines like North Korea’s variants of the Soviet-era RD-250 or 4D10 engines—has been dismantled.

Though satellite imagery alone does not allow for the verification of the extent of the dismantlement of the metal superstructure, high-resolution imagery published by 38 North makes it clear that the structure has been considerably pared down. Given that the foundation itself has yet to be demolished, it is likely that North Korea’s actions remain reversible; reestablishing the superstructure for continued testing of large liquid propellant engines may only take a matter of weeks should Kim Jong Un order it.

Kim Jong Un earlier in the year pledged to halt missile tests while a diplomatic détente continues | Photo: KCNA

Kim, however, may not do so. On April 20he announced to the 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea “no nuclear test and intermediate-range and inter-continental ballistic rocket test-fire are necessary for the DPRK now, given that the work for mounting nuclear warheads on ballistic rockets was finished as the whole processes of developing nuclear weapons were carried out in a scientific way and in regular sequence, and the development of delivery and strike means was also made scientifically.”

Kim’s main headline announcement that day was a decision to close the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site, but his comments on North Korea’s ballistic missiles merit a close reading as well. First, he announced a self-enforced moratorium on the testing of intercontinental-range ballistic missiles—the Hwasong-14 and the Hwasong-15.

“We will discontinue nuclear test and inter-continental ballistic rocket test-fire,” Kim said, a promise that remains true as of this writing—and likely true for the duration of productive inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korea talks.

Embedded in his remarks that day was the implicit assertion that North Korea did not require further development of its liquid propellant engines. The Hwasong-12, Hwasong-14, and Hwasong-15 all rely on the RD-250 engine set that was tested twice: once in September 2016 in a single-chambered configuration, which North Korea described as “a new type high-power engine of a carrier rocket for the geo-stationary satellite” and again in March 2017, in the very same four-vernier-single-thruster configuration that would fly days later unsuccessfully on the Hwasong-12.

The latter test was described as an event of “historic significance” by KCNA, with state media paraphrasing Kim as saying that the “whole world will soon witness what eventful significance the great victory won today carries.”

That historic significance became apparent quickly. The “March 18 Revolution” engine, as it came to be known in the four-vernier configuration, enabled the first stage of the Hwasong-12 and Hwasong-14. In November 2017, North Korea would bring the 80-ton-force twin-chambered RD-250 on a gimbal to power the first stage of the gargantuan Hwasong-15 ICBM.

The moment these flight tests were conduct successfully—in the case of the Hwasong-12 thrice and the Hwasong-14 twice—North Korea may have calculated that it had sufficient data on the performance of its engines to cease static testing at Sohae. (Note: Western aerospace engineers I’ve spoken to have expressed incredulousness at the idea that North Korea could successfully operationalize these missiles with such a limited number of static engine tests.)

Whatever the reality of the quality of North Korea’s performance data on its large liquid propellant engines, Kim has clearly calculated that Sohae is no longer necessary. Even if the case for the site’s dismantlement within North Korea isn’t based on a sound technical rationale, it is entirely plausible that Kim has made a political and diplomatic calculation.

Evidence of the dismantlement comes as clouds gather over the U.S.-North Korea diplomatic process. Pompeo’s early-July trip to Pyongyang was widely regarded as a failure—by western Korea-watchers and North Korean state media alike. In the meantime, the United States has highlighted continuing North Korean sanctions evasion and chided China and Russia for failing to implement UN Security Council resolutions on depriving North Korea of oil imports.

But North Korea doesn’t give away concessions for nothing, raising the prospects of an already-agreed nonpublic quid pro quo—possibly brokered by Pompeo in Pyongyang. The crucial detail that supports this hypothesis is that when Trump announced the missile engine dismantlement on June 12, he was falsely taking credit for winning an agreement on a specific, technical concession from Kim. Subsequent reporting suggested that it was Kim who came prepared to Singapore to offer up the static engine test stand on a platter to Trump, hoping to have the concession underwrite the start of a good faith diplomatic process.

The bottom line on the dismantlement activity around the Sohae test stand is that it should be seen as a sign of continued North Korean intent to keep the diplomatic process running with the United States, but less as a major technical concession. The true prize for the United States, in its quixotic quest for denuclearization, will be any hint of a production freeze in North Korea’s ballistic missile or nuclear weapons industries. Kim’s January 1 order for the mass production of missiles and warheads remains in place.

Bermudez’s second revelation—of dismantlement activity at a processing building associated with North Korea’s satellite launch program—is more surprising. The observed activity would not be debilitating or totally disabling of near-term satellite launch activity at the Sohae site. Optimistically, it can be interpreted as revelatory of North Korean intent to repurpose or perhaps entirely disable the site of its space-launch role.

This, however, may be misplaced. Sohae is a source of pride for North Korea’s civilian space program, which is enshrined as a core component of the country’s scientific prowess. The site, for instance, features an impressive-by-North-Korean-standards mission control room.

The pessimistic assessment is that even if North Korean intends dismantlement activity at the satellite launch facilities at Sohae to be taken by the United States as a sign it hopes to maintain diplomatic momentum, there’s no reason for the country’s civilian space program to remain tethered to the launch gantry tower at Sohae.

Mobile space launches, while unusual, aren’t unheard of. They’ve been carried out by Israel for its Ofeq series of satellite launches atop the Shavit launch vehicles and China’s smaller Kuaizhou space launch vehicles.

North Korea’s indigenously modified nine-axle transporter-erector-launcher and a repurposed Hwasong-15 on an orbital trajectory could serve as a next-generation space launcher—perhaps dubbed the Unha-4. (A report in NK News last year, and subsequent open source analysis, suggest an in-development space launcher.)

The higher-level significance of the developments Bermudez has highlighted should not be missed: this activity at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station represents the first technical activity to limit aspects of North Korea’s space and ballistic missile development programs that is a direct result of U.S.-North Korea diplomacy since June 12.

The ICBM test moratorium and the dismantlement of Punggye-ri—while often seen as a product of U.S. pressure and diplomacy—were unilateral decisions taken by Kim and announced to the WPK internally. They enabled diplomacy to proceed, but did not evidence give-and-take between the United States and North Korea.

In a scenario where working group-level talks between North Korea and the United States continue and are productive across the full gamut of issues raised in Singapore—not just denuclearization—these actions at Sohae might be the first steps toward a production freeze or other kind of cap on North Korean horizontal nuclear force development. Indeed, we should await any commentary in North Korean state media on the activity at Sohae.

In the meantime, overinterpreting North Korean actions and intentions remains perilous. Taking this data for what it suggests, we have a limited demonstration of North Korean willingness to engage in technical rollback—at least one of which is a result of whatever transpired on Sentosa Island on June 12. It is no more and no less until North Korea makes its intentions clear.

Edited by Oliver Hotham

Featured image: Rodong Sinmun