WASHINGTON – A U.S. research institute said Friday it has detected new construction at a North Korean missile launch site which the institute says is being upgraded to handle larger rockets.
Commercial satellite imagery shows work has resumed after a months-long hiatus at Tonghae, on the country’s northeast coast, on what looks like a rocket assembly building and a launch control center.
The findings were provided to AP ahead of publication by 38 North, the website of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
It is the latest sign that North Korea is pressing ahead with its nuclear and missile programs despite declaring its willingness to resume aid-for-disarmament negotiations.
Overhead photos have also indicated the North restarted a mothballed plutonium reactor in late August, and is working to upgrade its other main missile launch site at Sohae.
But 38 North says a rocket test does not appear imminent at either launch site.
Assessing the intentions of North Korea’s secretive regime and the nation’s technical capabilities is notoriously difficult. The conclusions are based on analysis of imagery by Nick Hansen, a retired intelligence expert who closely monitors developments in the North’s weapons programs.
Sohae, which lies on North Korea’s west coast, has been used for its recent major launches, including the firing of a three-stage rocket into space last December. That launch was viewed by the U.S. as a worrying marker in the North’s development of ballistic missile technology.
In the meantime, Tonghae has been left idle, but experts in 2012 detected construction of a new launch pad to accommodate larger rockets.
That work had appeared to be on hold since early this year, but images taken between Sept. 16 and Nov. 18 show a roof has been built atop the new launch control center and walls erected for the rocket assembly building. There is no sign, however, of further construction yet at the new launch pad itself and on an access road.
Completion of all the new facilities at Tonghae may take until 2017, 38 North says. But combined with construction activity at Sohae, where a new launch pad for mobile ballistic missiles appears to be in the works, North Korea seems to be scaling up its capabilities.
In February, the North conducted its third nuclear test explosion, which likely allowed it to make progress in miniaturizing an atomic device it could mount on a missile. It has also paraded mobile, intercontinental ballistic missiles that could potentially reach North America, although there is debate about whether the missiles it displayed were just mock-ups.
Last month, Adm. Samuel Locklear, the chief of U.S. forces in the Pacific, said North Korea wants the world to believe that it has such a missile, so he is bound to take that threat seriously.
Pyongyang has enshrined its drive to build a nuclear arsenal in its constitution, but also says it is willing to restart international nuclear talks it withdrew from five years ago.
The U.S. says it will only negotiate with North Korea if it first takes concrete actions to demonstrate its sincerity about the goal of disarmament.