Military

New Launch Pad and Significant Expansion Underway at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station

New launch pad under construction at Sohae Satellite Launching Station, May 23, 2023. (Copyright © Airbus DS 2023) Image may not be republished without permission. Please contact [email protected].

Key Findings

  • Satellite imagery of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station—from where North Korea previously launched three-stage space launch vehicles (SLV)—shows accelerated expansion and an unusual number of construction resources allocated to the station. The level and nature of activity observed clearly indicate that North Korea is moving to develop, transport, and launch larger, more sophisticated SLV and missiles.
  • Unprecedented activity at Sohae includes the addition of a new launch pad about 2.7 kilometers southeast of the original launch pad. Although the original launch pad is designed to launch liquid fuel rockets or SLV, it is unclear if the new launch pad will be likewise configured or dedicated to launching solid- fuel ballistic missiles.
  • North Korea announced on May 17 that its “military reconnaissance satellite No. 1” is “ready for loading after undergoing the final general assembly check” and that all plans have been approved by Kim Jong-un. This, combined with the frenetic pace of construction activity at Sohae, strongly indicates that a launch is in the offing.
  • However, both the original and the new launch pads are not yet operational, and no missiles and/or fueling activities have yet been detected. If North Korea plans to launch the reconnaissance satellite in the immediate future without a launch pad, it will likely do so using a mobile launcher.
  • Any reconnaissance satellite launch would involve the use of domestically developed or covertly acquired ballistic missile technology, which is currently banned by the UN and would be a violation of existing UNSC resolutions. If successful, the satellite would provide North Korea with an immensely improved capability to monitor locations within East Asia and the world.

On May 17, 2023, North Korean state media reported on Kim Jong-un’s inspection of the Reconnaissance Satellite Launch Preparatory Committee, which is responsible for the launching of the country’s “military reconnaissance satellite No. 1.”1 The satellite was described as “ready for loading after undergoing the final general assembly check and space environment test,” and Kim “approved the future action plan of the preparatory committee.”2

Kim Jong-un providing on-the-spot guidance to the Reconnaissance Satellite Launch Preparatory Committee on May 17, 2023. (KCNA)

With the reported progress on the satellite, attention has been focused on the Sohae Satellite Launching Facility, where North Korea previously launched three-stage space launch vehicles (SLV). In March 2022, Kim Jong-un announced several tasks to be completed at the site that will expand its satellite launching capabilities. A few months later, in December 2022, the country declared it would “finish the preparations for the first military reconnaissance satellite” by April 2023.3

A May 23, 2023, satellite imagery of Sohae Satellite Launching Station shows an accelerated expansion and an exceptional number of construction resources allocated to the station. The level and nature of activity observed indicate that North Korea is moving to develop, transport, and launch larger, more sophisticated SLV and missiles.

Original Launch Pad

Recent satellite imagery show that the supplies, equipment, and prefabricated steel framework components, which were seen laid on the original launch pad area since August 2022, were cleared in early May. Throughout the first half of the month, new construction materials were seen on the pad. The rail-mounted transfer structure, with a new roof and walls, has been moved back to its original position alongside the processing building. Imagery from May 23, 2023, shows the launch pad clear of supplies and equipment. Liquid fuel and oxidizer storage adjacent to the launch pad continued to be expanded and rebuilt. The clearing of the launch pad increases the likelihood that the launch pad is closer to being operational. However, no rocket or fueling activities have yet to be detected. With the construction of a new launch pad to the southeast, the use of this original launch pad for the new reconnaissance satellite is unclear.

Overview of the Original Launch Pad Area, May 23, 2023. (Copyright © Airbus DS 2023) Image may not be republished without permission. Please contact [email protected].
Close-up view of the western section of the original launch pad, May 23, 2023. (Copyright © Airbus DS 2023) Image may not be republished without permission. Please contact [email protected].
Close-up view of the eastern section of the original launch pad, May 23, 2023. (Copyright © Airbus DS 2023) Image may not be republished without permission. Please contact [email protected].

New Launch Pad

A new launch pad is being built approximately 2.7 kilometers southeast of the original launch pad, significantly expanding Sohae Satellite Launching Station’s future capabilities. The new launch pad measures approximately 132 meters by 40 meters and is smaller than the original launch pad, which measures approximately 192 meters by 63 meters.

The location was previously a site of a small road and building. By April 12, 2023, imagery shows the start of ground razing. Concrete for the launch pad was poured around mid-May, and rapid construction has continued.

While the new launch pad is still under construction, several elements have been added to the pad, including a likely rail-mounted environmental shelter or processing building (approximately 55 meters by 30 meters), four light and camera towers, two lightning towers, a launcher strongback, an exhaust deflector with a covered opening, and a support building. The presence of two telescoping cranes, numerous construction vehicles, personnel, and construction materials suggests that the work at this site is a high priority for North Korea. Additionally, informed sources suggest that an umbilical tower could be added before construction is complete.4

It is yet unclear if the new launch pad will be designed to launch liquid fuel rockets or SLV like the original launch pad or be dedicated to launching solid-fuel ballistic missiles. However, both the original and the new launch pads are not yet operational, and no SLV/missiles or fueling activities have yet been detected. Nonetheless, if North Korea plans to launch the reconnaissance satellite in the immediate future, it could do so using a mobile launcher at either of these or a third location.

New launch pad under construction at Sohae Satellite Launching Station, May 23, 2023. (Copyright © Airbus DS 2023) Image may not be republished without permission. Please contact [email protected].

New VIP Observation Area

Approximately 1.3 kilometers northeast of the new launch pad, a new VIP observation area has been recently added. The observation area measures approximately 1,075 square meters. Roadwork and landscaping are observed in the May 23, 2023, image. The observation area provides an unobstructed view of the new launch pad and will likely be used when Kim Jong-un visits and oversees a launch at the new pad.

New VIP observation area, May 23, 2023. (Copyright © Airbus DS 2023) Image may not be republished without permission. Please contact [email protected].

Yunsong Pier Construction

Approximately 1.3 kilometers southeast of the new launch pad, the Yunsong pier is still under construction. Adjacent to the pier, concrete pilings are being placed along the now dirt-filled shoreline for a seawall. It is unclear how large the pier and seawall will be upon completion or if it will be further developed into a port.

Yunsong pier construction, May 23, 2023. (Copyright © Airbus DS 2023) Image may not be republished without permission. Please contact [email protected].

The coast along which the pier is being constructed is known to be inhospitable to vessel traffic due to shallow waters and a high tidal range. However, the addition a pier at this location will allow larger SLVs or ballistic missile components to be transported via water. Informed sources suggest that this pier could become a viable alternative to the current use of rail transportation. 

Ongoing Road Construction Along East Coast

In our previous report, the need for significant road development to host larger SLVs at Sohae was mentioned. Recent imagery shows that such road construction work is in progress in the eastern section of the site. One example is located approximately two kilometers northwest of the Yunsong pier and approximately one kilometer northwest of the new launch pad, where the previous dirt and rock quarry has been developed into the main service road of the site’s eastern section. Several graders, rollers, and bulldozers are seen on the road. The western section of the road is connected to a larger fork, allowing for wider turns into the new road. The construction is likely part of continuing work to create a more extensive road network to support the movement of larger space launch vehicles and missiles at Sohae.

Ongoing road construction along the east coast of Sohae, May 23, 2023. (Copyright © Airbus DS 2023) Image may not be republished without permission. Please contact [email protected].

New Construction Warehouse Facility at Yunsong

The high-priority nature and impressive level of construction activity throughout the eastern section of Sohae are evidenced by the addition of a new construction warehouse facility. Located between the pier and the new launch pad, the facility includes several warehouse and support buildings, a motor vehicle storage and maintenance area, as well as a large barracks or support building still under construction. The facility is similar to a preexisting construction support area on the western section.

New construction warehouse facility at Yunsong, east of Sohae, May 23, 2023. (Copyright © Airbus DS 2023) Image may not be republished without permission. Please contact [email protected].

Yunsong Vertical and Horizontal Engine Test Stands

No significant changes to the Yunsong vertical test stand have been observed, except for the ongoing changes to the size and shape of the sand/dirt piles, which are likely used as part of the construction throughout the site.

Yunsong vertical engine test stand, May 23, 2023. (Copyright © Airbus DS 2023) Image may not be republished without permission. Please contact [email protected].

Similarly, no significant activity has been observed at the Yunsong horizontal engine test stand and the nearby ballistic missile test silo, which was the site of an SRBM test in March.5 The May 23, 2023, image shows a 6-meter-by-6-meter cover on the silo.

Yunsong horizontal engine test stand and nearby ballistic missile silo test facility, May 23, 2023. (Copyright © Airbus DS 2023) Image may not be republished without permission. Please contact [email protected].

Tunnel Construction Sites

At both west and east construction sites of the tunnel further north, visible activity has decreased, likely because resources are being drawn elsewhere throughout the facility. However, both sites still appear to be under construction, as evidenced by the water draining from the portal and the presence of forms used for the finishing of the interior roof.

West construction site of tunnel, May 23, 2023. (Copyright © Airbus DS 2023) Image may not be republished without permission. Please contact [email protected].
East construction site of tunnel, May 23, 2023. (Copyright © Airbus DS 2023) Image may not be republished without permission. Please contact [email protected].

Northern Section of Facility

Although less dramatic than the eastern section, the northern area of Sohae Satellite Launching Station also shows progress in existing construction and the movement of supplies to support the expansion activities. At the newer rail-served warehouse, supplies are laid out in the open. At the nearby headquarters and administration building, vehicle traffic of SUVs, buses, vans, and trucks is observed.

Rail-served warehouse in the northern section of Sohae Satellite Launching Facility, May 23, 2023. (Copyright © Airbus DS 2023) Image may not be republished without permission. Please contact [email protected].

South of the headquarters and administration building is a sand/gravel pile used for various constructions at Sohae over the past year. Recent imagery shows the changing size and shape of the sand/gravel pile and the presence of railcars on the tracks immediately to the left. As seen in the May 23, 2023, imagery, the sand/gravel pile is invading the adjacent rail tracks, indicating the rushed work at this location.

Ongoing railroad activity and changing size and shape of sand/gravel pile, May 23, 2023. (Copyright © Airbus DS 2023) Image may not be republished without permission. Please contact [email protected].

At the horizontal processing building to the south, the size and shape of supplies stored throughout the building’s premises continue to change. Notably, on the rail directly to the west of the building, two probable covered gondolas and a 24-meter-long boxcar are observed. These railcars have likely delivered heavy equipment of some sort, potentially for components of the strongback and towers at the new launch pad.

Horizontal processing building at Sohae Satellite Launching Station, May 23, 2023. (Copyright © Airbus DS 2023) Image may not be republished without permission. Please contact [email protected].

Construction has progressed at the new processing (integration) facility east of the existing horizontal processing building. The outer walls around the building have now been placed, and several shovels and other equipment are seen throughout the perimeters and nearby open-air storage yards.

New probable processing facility at the site of former General Satellite Command and Control Center, May 23, 2023. (Copyright © Airbus DS 2023) Image may not be republished without permission. Please contact [email protected].

The construction support compound, located approximately 900 meters southeast of the new probable processing facility, shows a significant increase in the number of warehouses, support buildings, and various construction vehicles. Consistent with activity observed throughout the facility, the compound is one of several sites being used to support the high level of construction at Sohae.

Construction support compound, May 23, 2023. (Copyright © Airbus DS 2023) Image may not be republished without permission. Please contact [email protected].

References

  1. “Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Inspects Reconnaissance Satellite Launch Preparatory Committee,” KCNA, May 17, 2023.
  2. Ibid.
  3. “NADA Conducts Important Test for Development of Reconnaissance Satellite,” Rodong Sinmun, December 19, 2022.
  4. Interview data acquired by Joseph S. Bermudez Jr.
  5. Colin Zwirko, “Kim Jong Un and daughter watch missile test stimulating nuclear attack on US, ROK,” NK News, March 20, 2023, https://www.nknews.org/2023/03/kim-jong-un-and-daughter-watch-missile-test-simulating-nuclear-attack-on-us-rok/.