North Korea Resumes Construction at Tonghae Missile Launch Site

A new analysis of satellite imagery suggests that the DPRK took steps to reinvigorate its launch site at Tonghae.

Against the back drop of all the hullabaloo surrounding China’s decision to unilaterally impose an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) last week, a report emerged that North Korea took steps to resume construction of new facilities at the Tonghae Satellite Launching ground (also known as Musudan-ri). A report published by the 38 North blog of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies suggests that the secretive North Korean regime has opted to continue building “a launch pad, missile assembly building and launch control center … to test future generations of larger, more capable rockets.” The construction was on a one-year hiatus.

Nick Hansen, the author of the report, speculates that given current rates of progress on Tonghae, the entirety of the new facilities may not become operational before 2017. Hansen, an expert in imagery analysis, suggests that current satellite evidence gives no reason to expect a test launch before the end of the year. I encourage readers to take a look at Hansen’s complete report, which examines the available satellite imagery in some detail in support of his claims.

Tonghae is the main counterpart launch station to the newer Sohae Satellite Launching Station which is located in the northwestern county of Cholsan, near the Chinese border. Tonghae is located on North Korea’s northeastern coastline, on the Sea of Japan. Sohae was the site of the most recent Unha-3 launches, and the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Earth observation satellite. The Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 was launched almost exactly a year ago. Given that flurry of missile-related activity, Sohae was taken to receive the bulk of the attention from the regime, leading North Korea-watchers to speculate that Tonghae might eventually be abandoned altogether, owing to a strategic decision by the regime, a resource shortage, or perhaps both. This appears not to be the case anymore.

Tonghae was long-perceived as an austere and limited missile facility, unable to support the sort of extensive testing that would be needed to develop a credible and reliable missile system. GlobalSecurity.org, in its description of the site, writes that Musudan-ri “is located at some remove from major transportation nodes such as the port at Kimchaek or the highway airstrip south of Kilchli. There are no railway connections, nor even paved roads connecting the launch complex with the outside world. While this profound isolation may be only a modest barrier to a test program consisting of a single launch every few years, it is evidently inconsistent with the transportation requirements posed by a serious missile test programs with launches every few months, such as are conducted by America, Russia or China.”

The Federation of American Scientists note in an unclassified imagery presentation that the “Musudan-ri engine test stand was created for the development and thrust measurement of long range ballistic missile engines.” Its unclear at this stage what the long-term plan might be for the Tonghae site — after all, most of the existing analysis on these missile sites is based on the hawk-eyed examination of often blurry satellite imagery. Hansen’s latest report suggests that there is no ongoing work on the roads leading up to the facility, and the launch pad has only seen modest improvements.

The resumption of construction at Tonghae is consistent with reports that the North has not given up its efforts to improve its missile capabilities. The report comes against the backdrop of an ongoing debate among North Korea-watchers about the Hermit Kingdom’s possible strides towards a highly enriched uranium (HEU) nuclear bomb (the regime has thus far only produced bombs with plutonium cores). As my fellow Flashpoints author Harry Kazianis noted last month, North Korea’s missile program shouldn’t be brushed aside as primitive and of no concern — a matter on which its neighbor to the south and Japan need no convincing.