WASHINGTON – North Korea is upgrading one of its two major missile launch sites, apparently to handle much bigger rockets, and some design features suggest it is getting help from Iran, a U.S. research institute said Thursday.
The activity at the launch pad could be a signal that Pyongyang is planning to fire a long-range ballistic missile that could fly over Japan.
A successful satellite launch in December and a nuclear test on Tuesday, both in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions, have intensified concern that North Korea is moving toward its goal of building a bomb small enough to be fitted onto an intercontinental ballistic missile.
An analysis written for 38 North, the website of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, indicates that Pyongyang has made significant progress since October in constructing a new launch pad and other facilities at Tonghae, on the country’s northeast coast. The assessment is based on commercial satellite photos, the latest taken in January.
It said design features, including a flame trench covering that protects large rockets from the hot exhaust gases they emit on takeoff, is similar to one at a launch complex in Semnan, Iran, and has not been used by the North before.
The analysis also identified activity at an older launch pad at Tonghae, last used for a long-range rocket in 2009, but said it’s unclear whether that indicates preparations for another launch at the site.
North Korea’s most recent long-range launches were conducted at a newer location, Sohae, on the west coast.
38 North estimates that construction at Tonghae’s new launch pad could be completed by 2016. It said tanks installed last fall in support buildings that will be used to store fuel propellant prior to a launch will be big enough for rockets three or four times larger than the rocket used in April
A Western diplomatic source privy to Pyongyang-Tehran ties said Thursday that Iranian scientists were likely present when North Korea conducted its third nuclear test Tuesday at the Punggye-ri test site.
The source said Iranian Vice President Fereydoon Abbasi, who is also concurrently director of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, proposed during a classified meeting of the Supreme National Security Council in November observing the imminent nuclear test of North Korea.
The Nov. 22 meeting was attended by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and relevant government ministers. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei authorized Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi to negotiate and pay the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars in Chinese yuan accumulated from transactions through Kunlun Bank in Beijing, the source said.