Mysterious New Construction Underway at North Korea’s Sohae Launch Facility

Recent commercial satellite images show new construction work at the Sohae (Tongchang-ri) Launch Facility in North Korea. The new activity comes just days after President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un left a summit in Hanoi without a deal. However, is unclear whether the construction at the site is directly related to the summit’s outcome.

Still, some speculate that the recent activity at the closely-watched facility might be intended to send a message. Following his first summit with Mr. Kim in Singapore last year, Mr. Trump touted reports that North Korea had begun dismantling the Sohae facility. So, restarting work there could be a veiled warning to Mr. Trump.

Trump Walks Away

At the Hanoi summit, Mr. Kim offered to dismantle some parts of the Yongbyon nuclear facility in exchange for sanctions relief. Yongbyon is the primary manufacturing facility for the plutonium and highly enriched uranium used in its bombs. Dismantling it would theoretically diminish North Korea’s ability to build new weapons.

However, Mr. Trump concluded that this was too meager a concession to justify lifting the sanctions. “They were willing to give us areas but not the ones we wanted,” he said at a press conference following the summit. “[W]e had to walk away from that particular suggestion.”

Nicholas Grossman, an international relations professor at the University of Illinois, quipped on Twitter that “North Korea’s heard of the walk away move too.”

Still, the value of what Kim was offering was indeed dubious. Analysts believe that North Korea has other newer enrichment sites that could take the place of Yongbyon. Last year, an article in The Diplomat revealed a covert enrichment site just outside of Pyongyang. Further, even if the North Koreans are taken at their word, this concession would only limit North Korea’s ability to build new weapons. It does nothing to address the existing ones.

If Mr. Trump were to make this deal, he would surrender the most important leverage that the U.S. has over North Korea. The UN sanctions from which Mr. Kim sought relief cut far more deeply than the U.S. sanctions that would remain in place. North Korea cares far more about these sanctions because under them, they are restricted from lucrative trade with South Korea and China.

What’s Happening at the Sohae Launch Facility

Map of North Korea showing the site of the Sohae Launch Facility
Roughly Explained

The Sohae Launch Facility, also known as Tongchang-ri, lies on the coast northwest of Pyongyang near the Chinese border. Sohae is the main site of North Korea’s satellite launches, some of which western analysts believe to be pretenses for missile tests.

Following the Singapore summit last year, Mr. Trump said that Mr. Kim had committed to dismantling the engine test stand at the site. However, this was not part of the official agreement. Now, it appears that Mr. Kim is reneging on that private agreement.

A rocket readied for launch at the Sohae Launch Facility
A rocket readied for launch at the Sohae Launch Facility in April 2012. Sungwon Baik / VOA

According to analysis by 38 North and CSIS Beyond Parallel, satellite imagery showed construction work at the engine test stand and launchpad just days after the Hanoi Summit concluded. The imagery was acquired by commercial satellite imaging firm Digital Globe on March 2nd. Further, 38 North reported that new imagery from March 6 shows clearing of construction materials at the site. This, they speculate, indicates it may be returning to normal operations. You can view the imagery here and here. For reference, here’s an older image of the engine test stand at the site from October 1, 2017.

An image from 10/1/2017 shows the Sohae Satellite Launch facility engine test stand.
An image from 10/1/2017 shows the Sohae Satellite Launch facility engine test stand. Google Earth

We don’t know for sure what this construction work is all about. North Korea has performed most of its actual intercontinental ballistic missile tests from mobile launchers rather than fixed launch facilities like Sohae. So, the activity at the site does not necessarily mean they are prepping for a new missile test. But, the Sohae site is important for engine testing. “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,”  and  of CSIS say.

Bottom Line

It’s unclear if the construction at the site is connected to the outcome of the summit. But, if it is, it could be significant. MrBermudez and Mr. Cha of CSIS speculate that it “may indicate North Korean plans to demonstrate resolve in the face of U.S. rejection of North Korea’s demands at the summit to lift five UN Security Council sanctions enacted in 2016-2017.” On Wednesday, when asked about the activity at Sohae, Mr. Trump told reporters that “I would be very disappointed if that were happening.”

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