A new report over at 38 North based on satellite imagery analysis by Nick Hansen suggests that North Korea has completed upgrading one of its “satellite” launch sites and could test launch an ICBM before the end of this year. The site in question is the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in Tongchang-ri in Cholsan County in the country’s northwest. Sohae was the site of the failed April 2012 launch of the North Korean satellite Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 and the successful December 2012 launch of Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Unit 2 via the Unha-3 rocket. According to 38 North, the construction indicates that “North Korea is now ready to move forward with another rocket launch.” It could do so by the end of this year, although there is no evidence to suggest that the regime has taken any decisions to this end.
According to Hansen’s analysis, the most likely test device would again be the Unha-3 rocket. There is little evidence to suggest that North Korea has succeeded in building a more capable rocket, though it is trying to do so. Some of the construction modifications observed via satellite suggest plans to accommodate a larger rocket. According to Hansen, the planned larger rocket remains several years away. The satellite imagery that forms the basis of Hansen’s analysis is available at 38 North and I recommend readers take a look.
As we’ve noted in the past, North Korea’s ballistic missile programs remain active and much construction has been observed at various sites across the country. Late last year, based on similar satellite imagery analysis by Hansen, it became apparent that the Musudan-ri launch site at Tonghae, on North Korea’s northeastern coast, was also under construction. Tonghae is the counterpart launch site to Sohae and isn’t expected to be completely operational until 2017. Additionally, South Korean intelligence reported earlier this year that it had detected signs of increased activity at the Punggye-ri launch site in Kilju County, North Hamgyong Province. Punggye-ri was where North Korea tested nuclear devices in 2006, 2009, and 2013. The activity at Punggye-ri followed declarations by North Korea that it would conduct a “new form” of nuclear test.
North Korea’s two coastal facilities, Sohae and Punggye-ri, together are intended to help it achieve what it considers a priority in its defense technology development: a nuclear device capable of being delivered via a reliable intercontinental ballistic missile.