A U.S. monitoring institute has claimed that the revamp of North Korea’s main rocket launch facility is complete.
The work comes at a time of increased speculation that Pyongyang is planning a rocket launch in October. Officials in South Korea believe that Kim Jong-un is planning a rocket test to mark the 70th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ party, according to The Associated Press.
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New buildings could enable test of larger rockets
It is thought that a possible launch from Sohae, on the west coast, could be a “strategic provocation.” Sohae was the site of the first North Korean space launch in 2012, which was widely condemned by the international community.
According to the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, images gathered by commercial satellites on July 21 show completed construction of a support building which would be used to prepare rockets for launch.
“It appears that the SLV (Satellite Launch Vehicle) stages and payload can be prepared horizontally in a new launch support building at the end of the pad, then transferred to a movable support structure that is several stories high, where they will be erected vertically, checked out and finally moved to the launch tower,” 38 North said in the report.
Construction work completed but no signs of launch preparation
Satellite images reveal that the moving support structure is approximately 24 meters long, 30 meters wide and 33 meters high. Work on a 240-meter long shelter has also been completed. It is thought that the structure will be used to conceal activity on a nearby railway line from satellite observation.
The upgrade work will allow the site to handle launch vehicles which are larger than the UNHA-3 SLV which has been used in previous tests.
Although commentators are worried about an impending launch, 38 North claims that no signs of launch preparations have been detected so far. “Despite the fact that the facility is ready after completing a construction program begun in 2013, we still see no sign of preparations at the Sohae facility for an October event,” said Joel Wit, a former state department official and editor of 38 North.
If a launch were being planned, we would expect to see missile-related rail cars arriving at the site, assembly activity at the site and the filling of fuel tanks at the launch pad, according to 38 North.
“There is also no public evidence to suggest that a decision has been made by the leadership in Pyongyang to move forward with a launch,” it added.
North Korean officials committed to rocket tests
Kim Jong-un is a great supporter of North Korea’s space program, and maintains that its intentions are peaceful. Kim was quoted by state media saying that Pyongyang would launch satellites into space as and when it sees fit.
However North Korea is banned from launching rockets under United Nations Security Council resolutions, because the technology could also be used in ballistic missiles.
Officials in South Korea apparently believe that the next North Korean missile launch will involve a larger missile than before. Journalists recently asked the North Korean ambassador to the UN about plans for an October missile launch to mark the anniversary of the ruling party.
“I’m sure we’ll have a grand celebration,” said Jang Il-hun. “We are free to do whatever we want.”
Relations with North Korea remain complicated
Many commentators believe that the rocket launch is actually a ballistic missile test in disguise. Such a move could provoke further Western sanctions against Pyongyang, and ramp up tensions with South Korea.
North Korea apparently has no interest in negotiating. Ji Jae-ryong, Pyongyang’s ambassador to Beijing, told the press that North Korea would not be suitable for an Iran-style nuclear deal because it is already a “nuclear weapons state.”
Now that a nuclear deal has been reached with Iran, attentions turn to Russia and North Korea as the world’s most dangerous nuclear threats. Although Russia possesses a far larger nuclear arsenal, it can be argued that North Korea is more dangerous.
Instability in the Kim regime is evidenced by purges of officials, and it is possible that Kim Jong-un sees nuclear and missile programs as a way of proving his legitimacy. If so, his willingness to take risky strategic decisions may be increased, with inherent dangers for South Korea and Japan.
Should Pyongyang successfully test an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, relations between the two nations could be altered significantly. Although it seems unlikely that Pyongyang possesses the necessary technology, it remains a possibility, and a worrying one at that.