Military, Nuclear Weapons

Sohae Launch Facility Update: North Korean “Snapback” After Hanoi

Key Findings

  • Commercial satellite imagery acquired on March 6, 2019—four days after our previous image—shows that North Korea has continued the rebuilding of key components of the launch pad and the vertical engine test stand at the Sohae Launch Facility, returning it to normal operating status.1
  • These actions amount to a “snapback” from the moderate dismantlement undertaken by the North Koreans at the Sohae launch facility after the Singapore Summit in June 2018 – that is, reassembly of the vertical engine test stand, rail transfer structure, and fuel/oxidizer bunker roofs. For additional images see this update.
  • The rebuilding activities at Sohae demonstrate how quickly North Korea can easily render reversible any steps taken towards scrapping its WMD program with little hesitation. This poses challenges for the U.S. goal of final, irreversible and verifiable denuclearization.
  • Following on Trump’s positive comments about Kim Jong-un in Hanoi and the announced termination of annual U.S.-ROK Foal Eagle/Key Resolve defensive military exercises, North Korea’s actions constitute an affront to the president’s diplomatic strategy as well as demonstrate North Korean pique at Trump’s refusal to lift economic sanctions during the meetings in Hanoi.

Sohae (Tongchang-ri) Launch Facility

 

The vertical engine test stand as seen on March 6, 2019. (Copyright © 2019 by Airbus) (Click each image to view larger size)

Another view of the vertical engine test stand as seen on March 6, 2019. (Copyright © 2019 by DigitalGlobe)

Commercial satellite imagery acquired March 6, 2019—four days after our previous image—shows that North Korea has essentially completed the rebuilding of both the rail-mounted transfer/processing structure on the launch pad and the vertical engine at the Sohae Launch Facility. This activity includes:

  • Vertical Engine Test Stand: The test stand superstructure, along with the added environmental covering, has been rebuilt. Additional work at this stand—such as the construction of a new environmental shelter on the entrance ramp—could indicate deliberate preparations to test rocket engines again.
  • Launch Pad: The rail-mounted transfer/processing structure has been rebuilt and moved back to its normal location above the underground rail transfer point and adjacent to the processing building. This structure is used to move rocket stages from both the underground transfer point to the processing building and from the processing building to the umbilical tower.
  •  
    The environmental shelters on the umbilical tower, which were opened four days ago to show the launch pad and no rocket is present, have been closed.

 
This site will be monitored for further activity consistent with readying the launch facility for possible use in the future. These activities are consistent with an unwinding or “snapback” of the modest disablement measures undertaken by the North Koreans after the Singapore Summit in June 2018, and speak to the ease with which the DPRK can reverse steps it might take toward denuclearization in the future.

The launch pad as seen on March 6, 2019. (Copyright © 2019 by Airbus)

Another view of the launch pad as seen on March 6, 2019. (Copyright © 2019 by DigitalGlobe)

References

Show 1 Footnote

  1. This post was updated with DigitalGlobe imagery of the Sohae Launch Facility on March 11, 2019.