An eight-month construction standstill at a North Korean site meant to launch bigger and better long-range rockets may signal Pyongyang is slowing or even stopping development of larger rockets, according to a new analysis of recent satellite imagery.
The sight of unfinished roads and grass growing from the foundation of a large new rocket assembly building could be welcome news for Washington and others who see Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile work as a threat — though it is unknown if the work stoppage is only temporary.
Another unknown is why North Korea stopped construction on the launch pad, rocket assembly building and launch control center at what was intended to be a major new facility at the Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground on the northeast coast, according to analysis provided by 38 North, the Web site for the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
However, the analysis of May 26 commercial satellite imagery from DigitalGlobe and Astrium provides some possible scenarios about what’s happening.
One theory is that equipment and construction troops sent from the site to help repair widespread rain damage last year might still be at other posts. Another is that North Korea’s leadership has decided that its more modern Sohae rocket launching site on the northwest coast, the one used to launch rockets in April and December last year, will be sufficient to support large rocket development
However, the most intriguing theory from the analysis is that the work stoppage could reflect a decision in Pyongyang to slow or stop building larger rockets.
“If Pyongyang ultimately abandons facilities to launch large rockets it only began building in 2011, that could have important implications for North Korea’s space launch program as well as the development of long-range missiles intended to deliver nuclear weapons,” Joel Wit, a former US Department of State official and now editor of 38 North, said in an e-mail.
Any clues about North Korea’s secretive rocket program, which Washington and others see as a cover for work on missiles that could strike the US mainland, are significant.
Another analyst said the construction stoppage may be linked to a desire to ease tensions that spiked this year after weeks of North Korean war threats following UN sanctions over its nuclear test in February and rocket launches.
“North Korea may have concluded that there’s nothing more to be gained from confrontation,” said Ohm Tae-am at the state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in South Korea.
He said North Korea’s struggling economy may also have figured into a decision to stop funding the construction work.
Even if the North resumes work at the site, the delay means completion could be pushed back to 2017, a year longer than earlier estimates, the analysis said.