Analysis, Military, Nuclear Weapons

North Korea Reportedly Renews Commitment to Dismantle the Sohae Launch Facility

In the run-up to a second Trump-Kim summit, South Korean diplomatic sources reported on Monday (January 28th) “Seoul and Washington last week confirmed that Pyongyang will scrap its Tongchang-ri [Sohae] missile engine test site and launch pad in the presence of international experts.” 1

As of January 20, 2019, commercial satellite imagery of the Sohae Satellite Launch Facility shows that no new dismantling activity has occurred at the vertical engine test stand or rail-mounted processing building since August 2018.

Key Findings

  • Launch Pad: The launch pad shows that the rail-mounted processing/transfer structure remains in the center of the pad with its roof, roof support structure, and portions of two vertical walls removed. Dismantled components are observed stacked in front of the structure and by the rail transfer point to the south. This status has not changed in the past five months.
  • Engine Test Stand: Both the old fuel/oxidizer bunkers and the vertical engine test stand’s steel superstructure remain partially dismantled.
  • Processing Building & Support Buildings: Minor activity, typical of what has been observed at Sohae since its establishment, is visible throughout the facility.
  • Dismantlement of Sohae would represent diminution of the inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) threat and could be pointed to as an achievement not accomplished by past U.S.-DPRK negotiations.
  • However, without negotiations over North Korea’s operational short-range ballistic missile (SRBM), medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), and intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) bases, U.S. acceptance of such a deal would raise concerns about decoupling from extant missile threats directed at Seoul and Tokyo.
  • Sohae dismantlement would best serve U.S. interests if it were in the context of a complete and verifiable declaration of all nuclear weapons, ballistic missile systems and missile related facilities.

 


Overview of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station (Tongchang-ri), January 20, 2019 (Copyright 2019 by Airbus).

The Sohae Satellite Launching Station, also known as Tongchang-dong Space Launch Center, located on the northwest coast, is North Korea’s primary long-range ballistic missile and rocket launch facility. The facility was first publicly used to launch an Unha-3 rocket on April 13, 2012, has been the site of two additional launches of Unha-3 class rockets on December 12, 2012 and February 7, 2016 and the engine test facility for large rocket and missile engines.

At the June 12, 2018 Singapore Summit, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un reportedly made a commitment to U.S. President Donald Trump that the North would dismantle the vertical engine test stand and processing building at the Sohae Satellite Launch Facility.2 Following some initial steps towards fulfilling that commitment during July and August of 2018, the dismantling activity at Sohae came to a halt. All of the dismantling actions taken during 2018 only require minimal effort to reverse.

The reported new commitment to dismantle the facility “…in the presence of international experts” sounds similar to a commitment made to explode the entryways to the tunnels at the Punggye-ri nuclear test facility. In that case, the North allowed a select number of reporters from the international media, but no nuclear experts, to attend. These factors raise concerns over the implementation and ultimate timing of these new commitments.


Overview of the vertical engine test stand at the Sohae launch facility, January 20, 2019 (Copyright 2019 by Airbus).

Commercial satellite imagery of the Sohae Satellite Launch Facility acquired on January 20, 2019 shows that no new dismantling activity has occurred at the vertical engine test stand or the rail-mounted processing building on the launch pad since August 2018. The absence of activity, when combined with only minor routine activity observed throughout the facility, suggests that the facility has been in caretaker status for the previous five months.

Vertical Engine Test Stand: The imagery from the 20th shows that both the old fuel/oxidizer bunkers and vertical engine test stand’s steel superstructure remain partially dismantled, with components of both laid out on the concrete approach apron. The new fuel/oxidizer bunkers and the foundation of the vertical engine test stand remain untouched. Therefore, the previous dismantling activities are relatively easy to reverse.

Launch Pad: The January 20th image of the launch pad shows that the rail-mounted processing/transfer structure remains in the center of the pad with its roof, roof support structure, and portions of two vertical wall removed. Dismantled components are observed stacked in front of the structure and by the rail transfer point to the south. This status has not changed in the past five months. All these dismantling activities are relatively easy to reverse. Although not mentioned in the Singapore Summit commitment by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the launch pad’s main processing building, gantry tower, and fuel/oxidizer bunkers remain untouched. Without their dismantlement the facility could be activated with a minimum of effort.


Overview of the launch pad area at the Sohae launch facility, January 20, 2019 (Copyright 2019 by Airbus).


Close-up view of the launch pad area at the Sohae launch facility, January 20, 2019 (Copyright 2019 by Airbus).

Elsewhere at the Facility: Minor activity (e.g., presence of vehicles, farming, etc.) is observed throughout the facility and are typical of what has been observed at Sohae since its establishment.


Overview of the horizontal processing building at the Sohae launch facility, January 20, 2019 (Copyright 2019 by Airbus).


Overview of the VIP housing and former satellite control center at the Sohae launch facility, January 20, 2019 (Copyright 2019 by Airbus).


Overview of the administrative and security headquarters buildings at the Sohae launch facility, January 20, 2019 (Copyright 2019 by Airbus).


Overview of the entrance and checkpoint area at the Sohae launch facility (Tongchang-ri), January 20, 2019 (Copyright 2019 by Airbus).

References

Show 2 Footnotes

  1. Jeong Yong-Soo and Lee Yu-Jeong, “North to destroy its main missile test site,” Joongang Ilbo, January 29, 2019, http://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/news/article/article.aspx?aid=3058811&cloc=joongangdaily|home|top. The titles Tongch’ang-ni (or Tongch’ang-ri) Launch Facility, Sohae Launch Facility and Sohae Satellite Lunch Station are used by different sources at different times to identify the facility. Tongch’ang-ni is the name of the town outside the facility’s entrance.
  2. Press Conference by President Trump, The White House, June 12, 2018, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/press-conference-president-trump/.