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‘Dramatic’ construction underway at N.Korea’s main rocket launch site

Sohae Satellite Launching Station (Google Earth)
Sohae Satellite Launching Station (Google Earth)
Satellite imagery showed “dramatic and ongoing” construction in North Korea’s main missile and rocket launching station on the west coast, a Washington-based think tank said Tuesday, noting that the site could be used for a satellite launch “in the near future.”

The construction activities have taken place throughout the eastern and central sections of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in the Tongchang-ri area, North Pyongan Province, according to Beyond Parallel. The project, which is under the auspices of the CSIS Korea Chair, analyzed commercial satellite images on Jan. 18 for the report.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had promised to demolish the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, near the northwestern border with China, during his first summit with then-US President Donald Trump in June 2018.

But the first visible signs of reconstructing the site were noted by Beyond Parallel in March 2020. The launching station had been used to conduct key tests to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, including engine ignition tests, and to launch the Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite and other long-range rockets.

In the latest report, Beyond Parallel underscored that the “nature and extent of all this construction activity on the launch pad and umbilical tower precludes their use for a satellite launch in the near future,” although the launch pad is not yet capable of launching any vehicles.

The satellite imagery, for instance, showed that construction near the entrance to the underground rail transfer station on the northwest corner of the launch pad has been largely completed. No significant activities were observed at the adjacent engineering and launch support buildings, and supplies previously stacked on the east side of the launch pad had disappeared.

Beyond Parallel pointed out that the two engine test stands at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station “appear operational.”

North Korea tested what appears to be a new model of a new solid-fuel rocket engine at the Yunsong Horizontal Engine Test Stand in December 2022. The report also said it is highly likely that the Yunsong Vertical Engine Test Stand, North Korea’s largest liquid-fuel engine test stand, “could be used for testing with minimum effort” should a decision to do so is made.

The construction activities are in line with specific orders that the North Korean leader made when visiting the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in March 2022.

Kim urged for facility upgrades and expansion to enable the launching site to launch various types of satellites, including military reconnaissance satellites. Pyongyang has pledged to complete its preparation to launch its first spy satellite by this April.

“The expansion of fuel/oxidizer storage, the addition of cooling water tanks, refurbishment of the umbilical tower and launch table, and other developments in the launch pad area support the long-term goal of launching larger and more capable space launch vehicles set forth by Kim Jong-un last year,” Beyond Parallel said in the report.

Beyond Parallel said the construction project -- which consists of two large excavation sites on the eastern and western sides of the ridge separating the Sohae Satellite Launch Station from the village of Changyadong -- could be for a large tunnel, potentially with an underground facility.

The report also suggested that the new construction could be one of the facilities that Kim previously ordered for “general assembly and trial gearing” of rockets and satellites.

“If all the announced modernization plans are completed and operational, it will provide North Korea with a comprehensive complex capable of developing and launching larger and more sophisticated satellite launch vehicles and support technology development useable by North Korea’s emerging intercontinental ballistic missile programs,” it read.



By Ji Da-gyum (dagyumji@heraldcorp.com)
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