Tuesday 19 March 2019

North Korea 'rebuilding rocket launch site' following failed summit

Kim Jong-un: North Korean leader met Donald Trump last week. Photo: Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP
Kim Jong-un: North Korean leader met Donald Trump last week. Photo: Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP

Ben Riley-Smith

North Korea has started rebuilding a key missile test site, analysts believe, after they spotted changes in recent satellite images of the facility.

Cranes were visible in parts of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, which also tests technology linked to intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The activity dates from between mid-February and early March - meaning it took place either before, during or just after Donald Trump's meeting with Kim Jong-un in Vietnam.

The Centre for Strategic Studies' Beyond Parallel project and 38 North, two respected North Korea research groups, concluded there was activity at the site after seeing satellite footage.

Jenny Town, of 38 North, told the BBC: "The North Koreans are likely see the rebuilding not as an active part of their missile programme, but of their civilian space programme."

There were also reports that South Korea's spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, made a similar assessment at a recent briefing to a committee of the country's politicians.

Two parts of the Sohae station seem to have been developed in recent weeks. At both the launch pad and the engine test site, some buildings appear to have been reassembled. Two cranes can be seen at each area in satellite images.

The changes are significant because the facility has been dormant since August 2018, a few weeks after Mr Trump and Mr Kim first met in Singapore. Mr Trump has previously hailed the lack of activity as a sign of progress.

Speaking at the White House yesterday, Mr Trump said of the news: "I would be very disappointed if that is happening... it's a very early report."

Experts warned against drawing too many conclusions from the changes, saying the activity does not necessarily mean North Korea is preparing to restart missile launches.

However, they also noted the regime would be aware any developments at the facility would be spotted by the Americans, who monitor such sites, raising the possibility it is being used to increase pressure on the US during talks.

The path forward in denuclearisation talks remains unclear after Mr Trump left the summit with Mr Kim in Hanoi last week without an agreement. Both sides have played that down, but no date for a third meeting between the two leaders has been set.

The Trump-Kim summit fell apart because of differences over how much sanction relief North Korea could win in return for closing its ageing main nuclear complex. The US and North Korea accused each other of causing the breakdown, but both left the door open for future negotiations.

Mr Trump said Mr Kim told him North Korea would continue to suspend nuclear and missile tests while negotiations are happening, and South Korea and the US announced they are eliminating massive military drills and replacing them with smaller exercises in an effort to support the talks.

The 38 North report said the rail-mounted processing building, which is where space launch vehicles are worked on before being moved to the launch pad, is being reassembled.

It said two support cranes can be seen at the building, and walls have been erected and a new roof added.


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