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North Korea Seen Reassembling Rocket Test Site

Mar 6, 2019
Originally published on March 6, 2019 9:33 am

Satellite imagery suggests that North Korea may be taking steps to reactivate a partially decommissioned long-range rocket test site on the country's west coast.

Experts say they see evidence that workers are rebuilding at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station. In a matter of days, a rocket-engine test stand and a large transfer structure have been reassembled, according to Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., a senior fellow for imagery analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The structures were taken down over the course of last summer, Bermudez says, and reassembled in a matter of days.

"We've seen a remarkably quick rebuilding," he says.

News of the apparent activity comes less than a week after a second summit between the U.S. and North Korea ended in stalemate. President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Feb. 27 and 28. But the two sides wrapped up talks early after it became apparent that they were far apart on any deal over North Korea's nuclear program.

North Korea wanted sanctions relief in exchange for the dismantlement of a major nuclear weapons research site at Yongbyon. The U.S., meanwhile, insisted that the North must surrender its entire nuclear program in exchange for economic benefits.

The Sohae facility, also referred to as Dongchang-ri and Tongchang-ri, is the site from which North Korea attempted satellite launches in 2012 and 2016. It's also the location of a test stand that Pyongyang has used to fire some of its rocket engines on the ground.

More recently, Sohae figured prominently in the ongoing talks between North Korea and the United States. Last June, after the first U.S.-North Korea summit, in Singapore, Trump said Kim had given his word that he would close "a major missile-engine testing site."

North Korea appears to have rebuilt an engine test stand in a matter of days.
CSIS/Beyond Parallel/DigitalGlobe, 2019

"I got that after we signed the agreement," Trump said at a press conference following his meeting with Kim. "I said, 'Do me a favor. You've got this missile-engine testing site. We know where it is because of the heat.' It's incredible, the equipment we have, to be honest with you. I said, 'Can you close it up?' He's going to close it up."

During a summit in September with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Kim followed up with an official announcement that he was closing Sohae. In that announcement, he referred to Sohae as Dongchang-ri. Some analysts suggest the name change might have been an effort to obfuscate that he was offering the same site to the South Koreans that he had offered to Trump three months earlier.

Regardless, satellite imagery suggested that North Korea did begin disassembling the site in the summer of 2018. Cranes began pulling down a large building at the site used to transfer rockets from an assembly building to a launchpad. Work also began on taking down heavy steel sections of the engine test stand. But by August, the work had stalled, and little further activity was observed.

A large support structure had been partially disassembled last year. New imagery shows it's mostly rebuilt.
CSIS/Beyond Parallel/DigitalGlobe, 2019

Now, Bermudez says, the test stand appears almost completely reassembled, and the building has been rebuilt with all but part of its roof. The work happened sometime between Feb. 20 and March 2, when the commercial images were taken by the company DigitalGlobe. Given that the site has lain dormant for months, Bermudez believes the work probably took place after Feb. 28, when the Trump-Kim summit concluded unsuccessfully.

Even if Sohae is being rebuilt after the failed summit, Kim isn't violating any agreement with the U.S., notes David Wright, co-director of the global security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "There is nothing that restricts North Korea's ability to do testing of its ballistic missiles," he says. While Kim has maintained a voluntary moratorium on flight testing, ground tests at facilities like Sohae are unrestricted.

Ultimately, the decision to rebuild Sohae, like the decision to take it apart, may be largely symbolic. Bermudez says the facility is not believed to be at the center of North Korea's development of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

"All North Korean ballistic missiles today, maybe with one or two exceptions, can be launched from mobile launchers," he says.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What do new satellite photos over North Korea really mean? The images show construction on a North Korean missile testing site. It's a site where North Korea dismantled some structures last year, seemingly at the request of President Trump, who spoke of closing a test site.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They secured the commitment to destroy the missile engine testing site. That was not in your agreement. I got that after we signed the agreement. I said, do me a favor. You've got this missile engine testing site. We know where it is because of the heat. We - it's incredible the equipment we have, to be honest with you. I said, can you close it up? You're going to close it up.

INSKEEP: That was then. This is now - seems that some structures have been rebuilt. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel is in our studios and covering the story. Hi there, Geoff.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Missile testing site - what is it exactly?

BRUMFIEL: So this site is known as Sohae, or sometimes it's called Dongchang-ri or Tongchang-ri. And this is actually a site where they tested long-range rockets, specifically the space rockets they used to launch a few satellites a few years back. So this is really a test site for some of their largest rockets. Their missiles actually have been tested elsewhere. But there is a test stand on the site where they're believed to have tested some of the missile engines. They sort of bolt them in and fire them into the ground to make sure they're working.

INSKEEP: So that is what they dismantled last summer after President Trump said they would, and this is what is now being rebuilt. How significant is this reconstruction?

BRUMFIEL: Right. So that clip we heard at the top was from Trump's first summit with Kim in Singapore - Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea. And after that summit, Kim apparently started to take apart parts of the Sohae site. So they dismantled part of a building they used for transferring their rockets from the sort of test bed assembly area into the launch pad. And they also dismantled the engine test stand, that place where they would bolt down these engines and test them. It appears now that they've remantled (ph) - is that a word? - put it back together.

INSKEEP: Sounds good to me.

BRUMFIEL: And they've done it in a matter of days sometime between late February and just the first couple of days of March. It's unclear whether they started this before or after the second summit, which we just had. But they - they've put everything back together again.

INSKEEP: Good to note that we don't know the exact timeline. But sometime in the same area as this summit between Trump and Kim that fell apart and ended with no agreement, they've been building things back up. The next question, then, is, how significant is this, because people will be wondering if this is North Korea saying, OK. Diplomacy didn't work. We're going to ramp back up again.

BRUMFIEL: Right. And I think it's really important to understand that this site has always been a little bit tangential to the missile program. When North Korea was launching those long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles that they tested in 2017, they actually did that from elsewhere. They did not use the site. This site's more of a testing site. And it's symbolic. Its value is largely symbolic. So I think this is really - if it is anything at all, it's sending a message about where North Korea might go in the wake of the summit, but it's not necessarily going to change the technical capabilities of the North.

INSKEEP: Geoff, thanks for the insights - really appreciate it.

BRUMFIEL: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.