A 38 North exclusive with contributions by Nick Hansen
New commercial satellite imagery confirms that major construction projects at the Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground have been halted. These projects—the building of a new launch pad, missile assembly building and launch control center—are designed to handle larger rockets than the Unha-3 space launch vehicle (SLV) able to handle heavier payloads and to fly greater distances. Work slowed and stopped at the end of 2012. While it was expected that construction would continue this spring, new imagery indicates that work had not resumed as of late May 2013, almost eight months later.
Exactly why construction has halted remains unclear. Initial speculation at the end of 2012 focused on the need for equipment and troops elsewhere to repair damage done by last summer’s typhoons and heavy rains. That explanation now seems less plausible given the amount of time that has passed since last year’s rains. An alternative explanation is that the DPRK may have decided that testing from the modern, already completed Sohae Satellite Launching Station will be sufficient to support its development of rockets larger than the Unha. Or the stoppage may reflect a decision either to slow or even halt development of larger rockets.
If work resumes, completion of the new launch facilities at Tonghae would appear to be at least a year behind the estimate of their original schedule. Depending on the pace of renewed construction, the facility may not be complete until 2017.
New Construction Has Stopped for Months
With its completion in early 2011, the new Sohae Satellite Launching Station (also referred to as Tongchang-ri) has been the main site for testing the Unha space launch vehicle (SLV). North Korea has been building new facilities at the older Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground (also referred to as Musudan-ri) site since 2011 capable of launching future generations of larger, more capable rockets. Construction of these new facilities—a launch pad, missile assembly building and launch control center—progressed rapidly in mid-2012 before slowing and stopping after heavy rains and typhoons hit North Korea. One explanation was that construction equipment and troops were needed elsewhere to repair damage caused by bad weather.
While it might have been expected that work on the new facilities at Tonghae would resume in spring 2013, new commercial satellite imagery indicates that construction has now remained at a standstill for almost eight months. Specifically:
- There are no signs of activity, equipment or personnel at the new launch pad where work began in mid-2011 and where most construction took place during the first half of 2012 (figures 1-3).
- While the foundation of a large new rocket assembly building was completed by August 2012, work appears to have stopped. Moreover, imagery shows grass growing inside the foundation (figures 4-6).
- Construction of a launch control building, started in spring/summer 2012, progressed rapidly until late October when the building was nearly externally complete except for the roof over the control room. There may have been some additional work done on part of the roof earlier this year but little has changed since then (figures 4-6).
- An improved dirt road intended to facilitate the transport of construction material and equipment as well as eventually large rocket stages from railheads in the cities of Kilju and Kimchaek remains incomplete, as does the road connecting key support buildings to the new launch pad (figure 7).
Figure 1. Incomplete new launch pad in late 2012.
Figure 2. No new construction as of March 2013.
Figure 3. Construction halt continues into late May 2013.
Figure 4. Incomplete new missile assembly and launch control buildings as of late 2012.
Figure 5. Construction does not seem to have resumed in early 2013.
Figure 6. Construction halt continues through May with grass growing in the foundation of the new assembly building.
Figure 7. A new road to the new launch pad remains unfinished.
Why Has Construction Stopped?
Whether the construction halt at Tonghae is just temporary or reflects more significant developments remains unclear for the moment. Heavy equipment and construction troops, perhaps diverted to other projects as a result of typhoons and heavy rains in late 2012, may still be needed elsewhere. However that explanation would seem less likely today than at the end of 2012 when the slowdown and stoppage first began. There may be other unidentifiable explanations as well that would explain a temporary halt.
Alternatively, the construction halt may reflect programmatic changes in North Korea’s rocket development effort. For example, Pyongyang may have decided that one launch pad capable of handling larger rockets than the Unha—located at the more modern Sohae facility—is sufficient to press ahead. An alternative explanation is that the North may have decided to slow or even end its effort to build larger rockets. That would also explain a construction halt at Tonghae.
If work resumes, the stoppage may have been the result of a more pressing and temporary requirement that diverted resources. In that case, Pyongyang would appear to be at least a year behind its original estimated schedule for completion of the new facilities. The pace of renewed construction will be an important factor in projecting a future completion date. But as a result of the lull in construction, the new facility might not be finished until at least 2017.
 For example, Pyongyang appears to have been developing a new rocket 25 percent longer and with a larger booster than the Unha-3 SLV tested in December 2012.