Asia Pacific

Activity at North Korea missile research facility may indicate preparation for rocket launch

Facility builds both ICBMs and space rockets; previous satellites were launched in April

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

Seoul’s spy agency has spotted movements by supply transport vehicles at a major North Korean missile research facility, possibly indicating preparations for a rocket launch, South Korean media said Thursday, following revelations a day earlier that the North appears to be rebuilding a rocket test site it had promised to scrap.

The activity was detected at the Missile Research and Development Facility, located in the Sanum-dong neighborhood on the outskirts of Pyongyang, a major research and development facility that produced the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile, which is believed to be capable of striking the U.S., the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper reported, citing a South Korean lawmaker who had been briefed by the spy agency on Tuesday.

The Sanum-dong facility also builds space-launch vehicles, experts have said. One, an Unha-3 rocket used in a February 2016 satellite launch at the Sohae long-range rocket facility, was seen in North Korean state media at the Sanum-dong site during an inspection by leader Kim Jong Un, according to Dave Schmerler, a senior research associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California who specializes in analysis of satellite imagery.

Two think tanks said in separate reports released Tuesday that work had started to rebuild the Sohae facility — also known by the name of its location, Tongchang-ri — which the North began to dismantle last year after pledging to do so in June at the first summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump.

Sohae, which is relatively close to Sanum-dong, would allow for an easy transfer of rockets to the site, where Pyongyang launched satellites in 2012 and 2016.

Those launches were widely viewed as thinly veiled tests of ballistic missile technology, including for long-range weapons such as the Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 ICBMs, and were roundly condemned by the international community.

This has led some observers to conclude that the timing of the activity there and at the Sohae site could point to a possible satellite or other kind of launch.

“Sohae is being reassembled and if there is activity” at Sanum-dong, it doesn’t necessarily mean an ICBM, Schmerler wrote Wednesday on Twitter, adding that the activity could signal a possible “rush” to a space launch “for political reasons.”

His sentiment was echoed by colleague Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

“North Korea makes both ICBMs (Hwasong-14, -15) and Space Launchers … at Sanum-dong. What we get is going to be a surprise,” Lewis wrote the same day on Twitter.

The moves at Sanum-dong and Sohae come after the collapse of nuclear talks at the second Kim-Trump summit in Hanoi and could be seen as a signal by Pyongyang of its unhappiness over how those negotiations ended unfruitfully. They also come ahead of two key dates for Pyongyang: April 5, the anniversary of the birth of national founder Kim Il Sung, grandfather of the current leader, and April 25, the anniversary of the creation of the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army in 1932.

The North has twice launched satellites on or before these dates: on April 5, 2009, and on April 13, 2012.

A rocket launch, however, even under the guise of a space program, would likely be seen by Trump as an escalation that would force him to respond.

Asked about the news of the reported rebuilding at Sohae, Trump said Wednesday that he “would be very disappointed if that were happening” but added that it is “too early” to know for sure yet.

The North’s rocket launches, which can have military applications, are banned under United Nations resolutions. Despite this, North Korean officials and state-run media have revealed a five-year National Space Development plan aimed at building a satellite communication system to contribute to “economic development, including geostationary satellites, and people’s lives.”