Flashpoints | Security | East Asia

North Korea Announces Completion of ‘Very Important’ Test at Satellite Launching Ground

Saturday‘s test may foreshadow a return to long-range missile testing by North Korea.

Ankit Panda
North Korea Announces Completion of ‘Very Important’ Test at Satellite Launching Ground
Credit: AP Photo/KCNA, File

On Sunday morning, a spokesperson for North Korea‘s Academy of National Defense Science announced that an unspecified, but important, test had taken place the country‘s Sohae Satellite Launching Ground, a facility on its west coast that has been used for both launching space launch vehicles and testing large liquid propellant engines for ballistic missiles. The test did not involve a missile launch, but appeared to be a ground-based test — possibly of a new engine.

“A very important test took place at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground on the afternoon of December 7, 2019,” the statement, which appeared in the outward-facing Korean Central News Agency, noted. “The Academy of the National Defence Science of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea made a report on the results of the successful test of great significance to the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea,” it continued.

The short statement concluded with an emphasis on the importance of the test. “The results of the recent important test will have an important effect on changing the strategic position of the DPRK once again in the near future,” it noted. No other information about the test was provided and no images were released.

The test follows reports citing satellite imagery last week showing the arrival of a new, unidentified storage container near the ground-based static engine test stand at Sohae. The container may have included a new engine for a possible new ballistic missile or space launch vehicle.

The test is the first significant reported activity at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground related to possible weapons development since the June 2017 static test of the Hwasong-14 intercontinental-range ballistic missile‘s second stage engine. In March 2017, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un observed the test of the engine that eventually was seen powering the first stage of both the Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile and the Hwasong-14.

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Saturday‘s test may foreshadow a return to long-range missile testing by North Korea. There are several possibilities for what the test may have involved. Given the use of the Sohae test stand in the past for the testing of large liquid propellant engines, this is the most obvious possibility. However, North Korea may have upgraded the test stand to accommodate large solid-propellant engines, too.

Last year, after the Singapore summit meeting between Kim and U.S. President Donald J. Trump, analysts observed that North Korea had dismantled the superstructure of the engine test stand. The structure was eventually reconstituted. It is unclear if North Korea may have upgraded or made other significant changes to the structural attributes of the stand between the initial dismantlement and the reconstitution.

After the meeting between Trump and Kim in Singapore, the U.S. president underscored that he had personally requested that Kim dismantle the engine test stand. “They secured the commitment to destroy the missile engine testing site,” Trump said.

“That was not in your agreement,” he added, referring to the Singapore declaration that he and Kim signed on June 12, 2018. “I got that after we signed the agreement,” he continued. “I said, ‘Do me a favor.  You’ve got this missile engine testing site.  We know where it is because of the heat.‘”

“It’s incredible the equipment we have, to be honest with you.  I said, ‘Can you close it up?‘  He’s going to close it up,” Trump added.