Construction Halted at New North Korean Missile Launch Pad; Old Site Refurbished in Preparation for Future Launches


North Korea has halted work at a new launch pad intended to conduct future tests of larger, liquid-fueled rockets, possibly with intercontinental ranges. Commercial satellite imagery of the Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground—commonly referred to as Musudan-ri—taken on August 29, 2012, also shows that Pyongyang has stopped construction of fuel and oxidizer buildings designed to support future tests near the new pad.

The exact cause of the construction halt remains unclear. One explanation is recent heavy rains. There has been no discernable flooding at the facility, but access to the construction site is limited to a heavily rutted dirt trail that requires vehicles to ford a stream. Heavy rains may have thus contributed to a decision to temporarily suspend work. Alternatively, heavy construction equipment used at the site may have been moved to other areas of the country to help deal with flood damage.

Whatever the reason, the slowdown, barring concerted North Korean efforts to make up for lost time, could result in a 1-2 year slip in the planned completion date of the new complex, which was originally estimated to be around the middle of this decade. Pyongyang, however, will still have the capability to test a larger, longer-range rocket when it is ready from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station (Tongchang-ri).

The August 29 imagery also indicates that Pyongyang is preparing its existing launch pad at Tonghae for new tests of the Unha rocket or other models of a similar size. The North is refurbishing the mobile stand at the launch pad that was last used in 2009 to test fire the Unha-2 satellite launch vehicle (SLV) and in 2006 to launch a two-stage long-range rocket. Moreover, the North appears to have strengthened its capability to destroy rockets after launch through the addition of a new antenna system to a command/destruct building located in its tracking facility.

Finally, the North Koreans have made rapid progress in building a probable launch control center for the entire Tonghae facility. However, the construction of a large new building to be used in assembling the stages of future larger rockets, while continuing, appears to have slowed. Construction has also continued at a slow pace on roads necessary to support a larger launch facility as well as on housing for personnel necessary to operate that installation.

Construction Activities

The Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground is located on the northeast coast in Hwadae County, North Hamngyong Province, and was reported complete in 1985. It consists of nine widely separated facilities located in and around the villages of Nodong, Taepodong and Musudan, interspersed with agricultural villages and fields. Tonghae was North Korea’s main missile test site until the recent completion of the new Sohae facility on the west coast (see table 1). The failed April 2012 launch was conducted from the new facility.

Table 1. Missiles and Satellite Launch Vehicles Tested from Tonghae

System Type Dates
Scuds B & C Missile 1980s
Nodong (Rodong) Missile 1993
Paektusan (Taepodong-1) SLV 21-Aug-98
Pudong II (Taepodong-2) Missile 4-Jul-06
Unha 2 (also called Taepodong-2) SLV 5-Apr-09

North Korea has been engaged in a major upgrade of its Tonghae facility since the second half of 2011. (Figure 1 shows the locations of the new facilities.) When last photographed in April 2012, construction was progressing throughout the site, particularly at a new launch pad, where heavy construction equipment was observed around the flame trench and concrete was being poured at its end, and at a new large missile assembly building about 1.8 kilometers to the southwest.

This new site was judged capable of testing a liquid-fueled rocket able to launch much larger satellites into space or delivering payloads to intercontinental ranges. In that context, a 40-meter-long rocket, significantly larger than the Unha rocket tested earlier this year, was reportedly observed at a Pyongyang research and development facility in April 2012.

Figure 1. Construction of Major New Facilities at Tonghae

Image © 2012 DigitalGlobe, Inc.

Developments at a New Launch Area

Commercial satellite imagery from August 29 (see figure 2) indicates that construction at the new launch pad has now been suspended. Moreover, while the flame trench needed to direct the rocket’s exhaust and the ring upon which the launch stand will be added appear to be complete, no further work has been done on nearby buildings intended to store the fuel and oxidizers essential to any future launches. In contrast to previous satellite pictures showing significant construction activity, the site has been cleaned up. There are no pieces of heavy construction equipment or workers present.

The exact reason for the halt in construction at this key installation remains unclear. One possible explanation is the recent heavy rains in North Korea. Since the new road to the launch pad is not complete, the only way to get construction equipment to the site is over a heavily rutted dirt trail that requires vehicles to ford a stream. Consequently, heavy rains may have contributed to the decision to temporarily suspend its construction. Alternatively, Pyongyang may have shifted heavy equipment to other areas of the country to deal with damage caused by flooding.

Figure 2. Suspended Construction of the New Launch Pad

Image © 2012 DigitalGlobe, Inc.

New Launch Control Center and Large Assembly Building

One important new development is that construction has commenced of what is probably a new launch control center—similar to the center at the North’s Sohae facility—near a large, still unfinished missile assembly building. Construction of this two-story building, measuring about 35m by 35m, with a large 15m by 15m open area at its center, has progressed rapidly. The structure may be the new launch control center for the entire Tonghae complex and is the only site in the facility where work is proceeding at a rapid pace.

There has been further, although very slow, progress on the construction of a nearby building intended to assemble the stages of future long-range rockets (see figure 3). In the August 29 image, the building’s foundation appears better defined and the erection of the sidewalls has started. 38 North estimates that the high bay section of the building measures 65m long by 25m wide and each of the longer sides has 10m additions partially along them. The building at the end is 55m long by 21m wide with a probable drive-through section at its middle.

Figure 3. Construction at the New Assembly Building Area

Image © 2012 DigitalGlobe, Inc.

The new road to the launch area from the assembly building is still in an early stage of construction, although two necessary concrete bridges have been finished.

Old Launch Pad Refurbished For Future Unha Launches

While most of the older facilities at Tonghae appear to be partially overgrown with vegetation and with little activity observed, an important exception is the probable refurbishment of the Unha mobile launch stand that was used to test long-range missiles in the past (see figure 4). This activity indicates that Pyongyang is preparing the site for future tests of the Unha rocket.

Since last viewed on April 29, the mobile launch stand has been moved on its rails partially out from under the gantry and the opening into the flame trench. It appears the 5.5m diameter circular baffles used during the 2009 Unha-2 launch to help keep exhaust flames away from the rocket just after ignition (first seen in a video of that test) has been reinstalled. The August 29 image also shows the uncovered exhaust hole in the launch stand that is usually covered. The diameter of exhaust hole is similar to that used for the Unha-3 launch at Sohae, indicating that the pad is intended to launch such a rocket.

In addition, there were at least five unidentified small objects on the pad that were not present in the past, indicating new activity at the site, possibly for improvements to the gantry.

Figure 4. Comparison of Mobile Launch Stand and Old Launch Pad

Images © 2012 DigitalGlobe, Inc.

Strengthening Command/Destruct System

Based on analysis of the August 29 imagery, Pyongyang appears to have strengthened its ability to destroy missiles launched from this facility, an important development since rockets from Tonghae can come close to or overfly Japan. In addition to a ground-mounted radar antenna and another mounted on an 8m by 15m building intended to track rockets, a small building in the compound with a 2-4 element roof-mounted antenna may be a command/destruct facility. The North appears to have strengthened its ability to destroy missiles in flight by adding a second antenna to the roof of the building (see figure 5).

Figure 5. Tonghae Command/Destruct Building With Probable New Antenna
(Note a probable cable tray that connects the two antennas.)

Images © 2012 DigitalGlobe, Inc.

Construction Continues on Support Infrastructure

Work continues on the infrastructure supporting the expansion of the Tonghae missile facilities. A major upgrade to the only road into the site from the west began in mid-2011. Figure 6 shows work in progress on a portion of the old road. Construction of new bridges and widening are still in progress with the objective of building an all weather dirt road. Since Tonghae, unlike Pyongyang’s newer Sohae launch facility, will not be served by a rail line, this upgrade is required to move construction supplies to the range and later the large rocket stages.

Figure 6. Improvements to the Dirt Road into Tonghae from the West

Image © 2012 DigitalGlobe, Inc.

Construction of the housing area began in the mid-2000s, coinciding with the planned expansion of the facility and its missions. It is expected that a total of 68 units will be available, with 15 currently under construction (see table 2 for expansion of housing units). The housing units will support construction crews as well as the surge of technical specialists needed to conduct missile launches. (Figure 7 shows the housing area.)

Table 2. Housing Expansion at Tonghae

Year Number of Units Added Total Units
2003 0 0
2006 17 17
2008 7 24
2010 0 24
2012 29 53
201? 15 68

In addition, less than 300m west of the existing housing area, a completely new village is being built. Started after late April 2012 and built on former agricultural land, this village, as of August 29, had foundations for more than 50 buildings with roads to support many more. The relationship of the village to Tonghae, if any, is unknown, although its proximity to the site would seem to indicate that it will play some role related to that facility (see figure 7).

Figure 7. New Housing under Construction

Images © 2012 DigitalGlobe, Inc.

This article was made possible in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s).

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