A 38 North exclusive with analysis by Nick Hansen.
Recent commercial satellite imagery indicates that construction of new facilities at the Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground in North Korea has resumed after a hiatus of nearly a year. Those facilities—a launch pad, missile assembly building and launch control center—appear to be designed to test future generations of larger, more capable rockets. In the short span of eight weeks—from September 16 until November 18—work resumed on the new launch control center, now nearly externally complete, and the assembly building, which is still in an early stage of construction. There was no construction at the new launch pad or on the road necessary to support these facilities.
There had been previous speculation that the construction hiatus at Tonghae and the start of major new projects at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station this past summer may have meant Pyongyang was gradually abandoning the older site. However, the restart of work at the new Tonghae facilities indicates that North Korea is still committed to maintaining two launch sites for a larger space launch vehicle (SLV) reported to be under development. The one-year hiatus will, however, certainly delay completion of the new facilities. While it is difficult to predict given the up-until-now haphazard pace of construction, the new Tonghae facilities may not be completed until 2017.
Imagery also shows no signs that North Korea is planning another long-range rocket launch in 2013. There is little to no activity at either the old Tonghae launch pad, which was used to test the Unha space launch vehicle in 2006 and 2009, or at other key installations critical for a launch. Moreover, recent imagery of the Sohae pad used to conduct Pyongyang’s recent Unha tests, indicates that construction is still ongoing, which would prevent launches in the near future.
Launch Control Center Nearly Externally Complete
Until mid-September 2013, the new launch control center—first identified as under construction in August 2012—remained incomplete with little or no work done in a year. By mid-November, a roof had been built over the central portion of the building that will house the launch control room (figure 1). The function of the blue and white roofing panels is unclear. Some could be skylights for natural lighting inside the control room or solar panels for additional electricity. Concrete paving had been installed around the building.
Figure 1. Roof now installed on the new control center.
Major Progress on the Missile Assembly Building
Like the launch control center, as of mid-September 2013, the new missile assembly building had seen no construction in over a year; grass had even started growing inside the open spaces of the foundation. By mid-November, work had resumed and walls had been erected. Although construction is still in an early phase, the layout inside the building is visible. The two largest rooms in the center section are for assembly and checkout of the rocket stages and the large room at the end is possibly for the payload integration. The small rooms along the sides of the building are probably for offices and checkout equipment (figure 2).
Figure 2. Major construction activity at the new assembly building.
The majority of these walls are likely prefabricated and brought in by truck. A probable crane can be seen that lifts the walls into position.
New Road Remains Unfinished
Satellite imagery indicates work has not yet restarted on the new road intended to support construction and the eventual transport of large rocket stages. (Tonghae is not served by a rail spur and the existing road is poorly maintained, unpaved and traverses narrow bridges.)
Since the new road remains incomplete and makes parts of the old one impassable, trucks carrying construction supplies for the launch control and assembly buildings have to use the finished part of the new road, the new bridge, and then go down a graded bank before crossing the stream and going on to the assembly building. Reaching the new launch pad is even more difficult and may be one reason why construction has not resumed there, since vehicles have to ford the stream in two places (figure 3).
Figure 3. Problems caused by the unfinished new road.
No Construction at the New Launch Pad
Unlike the new launch control center and assembly building, construction has not resumed at the new Tonghae launch pad. The only change was a pile of building supplies brought in between late May and early August 2013 (figure 4).
Figure 4. No construction at the new launch pad.
No Signs of Launch Preparations
The November Tonghae imagery indicates some routine activity at the old pad, used for Unha test launches in 2006 and 2009 (figure 5). The canvas has been removed from the support arms used to hold a rocket in place prior to launch and there appears to be some unknown activity at the base of the tower. Both are probably related to routine maintenance of the launch area rather than preparation for a launch. That conclusion is reinforced by the lack of any launch-related activity at other key Tonghae facilities, such as the assembly building.
Figure 5. Probable maintenance activity at the old Unha launch pad.
Additional satellite imagery currently under analysis indicates that construction is also still ongoing at the launch pad at the newer Sohae facility, where the two Unha launches took place in 2012. In short, it appears that Pyongyang has no immediate plans to test a long-range rocket, at least through the remainder of 2013.