Asia Pacific

North Korea begins dismantling key missile test site, satellite imagery suggests

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

North Korea has begun dismantling a key testing facility for its missile engines and rocket launches, according to a new analysis of satellite imagery released Monday.

Imagery taken from Friday to Sunday indicates that the North had started to disassemble portions of its Sohae Satellite Launching Station, the country’s main satellite launch facility since 2012, according to an analysis published by 38 North, a prominent North Korea monitoring group.

Most notably, it said, these include the rail-mounted processing building — where space launch vehicles are assembled before moving them to the launchpad — and the nearby rocket engine test stand used to develop liquid-fuel engines for ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles.

It called the move “an important first step towards fulfilling a commitment” made by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at his June 12 summit with U.S. President Donald Trump.

“Since these facilities are believed to have played an important role in the development of technologies for the North’s intercontinental ballistic missile program, these efforts represent a significant confidence building measure on the part of North Korea,” the report said.

Trump said after their summit that Kim had pledged to dismantle one of his missile installations, which would be North Korea’s most concrete concession to emerge from the Singapore meeting. At the time, the president did not name the site, though media reports quoting unidentified U.S. officials later identified it as Sohae — the newest of North Korea’s known major missile-testing facilities.

Although Trump has hailed the Singapore summit as a success, skeptics have questioned this assumption, given that Pyongyang, which has rejected unilaterally relinquishing its nuclear weapons, appeared to make no new tangible commitments in a vaguely worded joint statement.

In an analysis last month, 38 North said that there had been no signs of any activity toward dismantling Sohae or any other known missile test sites.

Little is known about the Sohae site, located in Tongchang-ri about 40 km from the border with China, and much has been pieced together from analysts’ assessments and the North Korean state-run media.

It was reported to have been established in 2008 and has research facilities nearby for missile development as well as a tower that can support ballistic missiles. In December 2012, the North launched a rocket, ostensibly called a space launch vehicle, from the site that overflew Okinawa and crashed in the ocean some 300 km off the Philippines. Officials from the Japanese and U.S. governments have criticized the North’s space launch program as a thinly veiled way to test ballistic missile components.

The Sohae site has also been used to test large Paektusan engines built for long-range missiles such as the Hwasong-15 ICBM, which the North claims is capable of striking all of the United States.

Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California, said the dismantling is “a good move” but called it “the bare minimum that can be done at the site.”

“North Korea does not need the Sohae engine test stand anymore if it is confident in the engine design,” she wrote on Twitter. As Kim “said himself, North Korea is moving from testing to mass production.”