North Korea Upgrading Missile Site?
Image Credit: Flickr / mroach

North Korea Upgrading Missile Site?


Some interesting reports the past couple of days underscore why though North Korea has largely been on the backburner of the international news agenda the past few weeks, the issues surrounding its nuclear program are far from settled.

The 38 North site reported yesterday on new satellite imagery suggesting a major upgrade of North Korea’s Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground that’s “intended to support future launches of rockets larger than the recently tested Unha – more capable liquid fueled space launch vehicles or missiles with intercontinental ranges – that will also overfly Japan.”

“In addition to a new launch pad under construction, much of the nearby village of Taepodong has been razed to clear the way for what appears to be a new building designed to assemble larger rockets.”

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Perhaps most intriguingly, 38 North notes that the new assembly building is similar to one located at Iran’s Semnan Missile and Space Center.

“While the extent of North Korean-Iranian collaboration on a new long-range liquid fueled rocket that both appear to be developing remains unclear, such cooperation would not be out of the question since the two countries have worked together on most of their ballistic missile and space launch vehicle development in the past. As construction progresses on the new North Korean facility, careful examination of further satellite photography will be warranted to discern possible new signs of cooperation.”

I wrote a couple of months back about the continued speculation over the extent of collaboration between North Korea and Iran, including the suggestion in German paper Die Welt, supposedly based on Western intelligence sources, that North Korea may have undertaken a nuclear test on behalf of Iran. That story was dismissed by some nuclear weapons experts, but either way, the two countries have a history of collaboration.

Last year, for example, a U.N. report suggested North Korea and Iran appeared to have been regularly exchanging ballistic missile technology, in violation of U.N. sanctions.

“Prohibited ballistic missile-related items are suspected to have been transferred between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran on regular scheduled flights of Air Koryo and Iran Air,” the report said. “For the shipment of cargo, like arms and related materiel, whose illicit nature would become apparent on any cursory physical inspection, (North) Korea seems to prefer chartered cargo flights.”

Parris Chang, a former deputy secretary general of Taiwan’s National Security Council, has a piece up in The Diplomat today that’s critical of the Obama administration’s approach to tackling North Korea, specifically what he describes as the “outsourcing” of policy to China.

What should the U.S. be doing instead? I asked Robert O’Brien, a senior foreign policy advisor to likely Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, for his take.

“North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is a serious menace to world peace. Nuclear weapons in the hands of Pyongyang threaten American forces on the Korean Peninsula and elsewhere in East Asia as well as our close allies South Korea and Japan. Furthermore, the North Korean nuclear program creates a real danger of proliferation of these weapons to rogue regimes, American adversaries and terrorist groups,” he told me.

“Unfortunately, the current administration’s approach to North Korea, based on a food aid deal that was violated by North Korea in a mere 16 days, demonstrates triumph of hope over experience. Simply put, President Obama has made no progress in disarming North Korea.” 

And how would a Romney administration do things differently?

“Gov. Romney will crack down on banks doing business with North Korea and sanction companies that conduct commercial shipping in and out of that nation. He will also step up enforcement of the Proliferation Security Initiative to constrain North Korea’s illicit exports by increasing the frequency of inspections of North Korean ships and discouraging foreign ports from permitting entry of such ships into their countries.”

In the meantime, North Korea has further ramped up the rhetoric, while denying it has any plans for a nuclear test.

“We had access to nuclear deterrence for self-defense because of the hostile policy of the U.S. to stifle the DPRK by force and we will expand and bolster it nonstop as long as this hostile policy goes on,” an unidentified spokesman for the North Korean Foreign Ministry said in a report by the state-run Korean Central News Agency, CNN reports.

Bloomberg, meanwhile, reported today that North Korea has denied that it is planning a nuclear test.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief