Satellite Shows ‘Rapid Pace’ of Work at North Korea Missile Site

North Korean soldiers march during a military parade in Pyongyang in April 2012. Recent satellite images suggest that the Kim Jong Un regime has sped up the pace of work on a number of construction projects at its main missile launch complex.
National Journal
Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
May 20, 2014, 10:24 a.m.

A new im­age ana­lys­is sug­gests that North Korea has dra­mat­ic­ally sped up the pace of work on con­struc­tion pro­jects at its main mis­sile launch site.

Com­mer­cial satel­lite pho­to­graphs taken as re­cently as May 10 have re­vealed not­able pro­gress on “a num­ber of im­port­ant con­struc­tion pro­jects” at the Dongchang-ri rock­et site, said im­age ex­perts Nick Hansen and Jack Liu in a Tues­day re­port for 38 North.

“While it is too soon to make a defin­it­ive judg­ment on their pur­pose, one work­ing hy­po­thes­is is that the North is build­ing a new com­plex to con­duct fu­ture train­ing and launches for mo­bile mis­siles such as the KN-08 in­ter­con­tin­ent­al bal­list­ic mis­sile,” the ex­perts said.

Hansen and Liu say their hy­po­thes­is meshes with the ap­par­ent rock­et en­gine tests of the KN-08 that have been de­tec­ted in re­cent weeks and months. North Korea has yet to test-launch the road-mo­bile mis­sile, but for­eign ana­lysts be­lieve it is de­signed to have con­tin­ent-span­ning flight cap­ab­il­it­ies. At least three en­gine tests of the mis­sile are un­der­stood to have oc­curred so far, ac­cord­ing to 38 North. Hansen pre­vi­ously said that the next lo­gic­al step in Py­ongy­ang’s de­vel­op­ment of the long-range mis­sile would be to con­duct a flight test.

While the con­struc­tion pro­jects were ob­served pre­vi­ously, the re­cent “rap­id pace” of work on them sug­gests they are a “high pri­or­ity” for the Kim Jong Un re­gime, ac­cord­ing to 38 North, which is a pro­ject of the U.S.-Korea In­sti­tute at Johns Hop­kins Uni­versity. The pro­jects in­clude a large new fa­cil­ity that — in the space of a little more than a month — went from hav­ing no found­a­tion to hav­ing a com­pleted cir­cu­lar level and four ad­di­tion­al lower levels on the in­side that give it the ap­pear­ance of an am­phi­theat­er from space.

Ad­di­tion­ally, a newly cleared area can be seen con­nec­ted to the cir­cu­lar fa­cil­ity that might be in­ten­ded for fu­ture use as a flat sur­face for train­ing mo­bile mis­sile units, the re­port said.

The May 10 satel­lite im­ages also show that work to aug­ment a mis­sile launch tower at Dongchang-ri “is con­tinu­ing at a slower pace than ini­tially pro­jec­ted, pos­sibly be­cause of high­er pri­or­ity work” at oth­er parts of the site, the ana­lysts said. The fir­ing tower pre­vi­ously had been used for the launch­ing of space rock­ets that have a dir­ect bear­ing on North Korea’s de­vel­op­ment of ICBMs.

38 North now be­lieves the al­ter­a­tions to the launch tower will not be fin­ished be­fore the middle of the sum­mer, after they were earli­er pro­jec­ted to be com­pleted by March or April. This means that no new space rock­et launch is likely to oc­cur at Dongchang-ri be­fore the end of the sum­mer, ac­cord­ing to the ana­lysts.

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