North Korea’s Tonghae Launch Facility: Little Activity Spotted; No Launches Planned


Recent commercial satellite imagery of the Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground, North Korea’s oldest rocket test site, shows little or no activity related to either construction of new facilities that largely stalled in mid-2012 (a new launch pad, missile assembly building and launch control center) or the impending launch of a long-range rocket or satellite. According to imagery from May 31, 2014, minor construction has taken place over the past 10 weeks on a new launch pad for a rocket larger than the Unha Space Launch Vehicle (SLV) as well as on roads intended to serve the new facility.

In addition, there is little or no activity at facilities used for the April 2009 Unha SLV launch, indicating that no rocket tests are planned for this summer.

The reasons for the on and off construction activities at Tonghae remain a mystery. One possibility is that Pyongyang has decided to shift available resources and to focus on the continued development and upgrading of the newer Sohae facility—the site of North Korea’s last two Unha launches—for future space and missile test activities. Another is that Pyongyang may have decided that one facility is sufficient to support its planned rocket program, perhaps because of resource shortages.

The absence of launch-related activities at Tonghae highlights what appears to be an overall cessation of North Korean WMD testing since February 2013. Since the execution of Jang Song Thaek in late 2013, there has been much speculation about imminent North Korean provocations, both conventional and WMD-related. In fact, the “imminent” fourth North Korean nuclear test has not taken place nor have there been any indications that it still may happen soon. Moreover, a rocket test is unlikely this summer from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station due to ongoing construction.

New Launch Site

Construction of the launch site first began in mid-2011 and progressed until April 2012, when work essentially stopped. The site includes an incomplete launch pad with a large 33 meter long, 9.5 meter wide flame trench, fuel and oxidizer storage buildings, a large gantry tower and a launch control bunker. In commercial satellite imagery from May 31, the flame trench for the pad is partially covered with building material first brought to the site in mid-2103. There was no additional activity of within the pad area. At this slow, on and off pace it is not possible to determine when the new launch pad will become operational.

Figure 1. Construction continues on a launch pad for a large new rocket.

Images © 2014 Airbus Defense & Space. All rights reserved. This image is not licensed for media use.

New Assembly and Control Buildings

Work on a new assembly building dates back to mid-2011, while the launch control building was started after mid-April 2012. Construction progressed very rapidly on the control building but was almost completely halted on the assembly building. As a result, the launch control building is now externally complete while the assembly building is still in the early stages of construction.

As of May 31, imagery indicates only minor work was in progress at the new assembly building. Starting in mid-November 2013, a large quantity of building materials was brought in for assembly building construction. Only two out of 26 stacks of these materials present on March 8 appear to have been used to date. While the building is still in a very early stage of construction, the presence of these materials indicates the pace of construction may pick up this year.

Installation of the roof over the center portion of the new control building began in October 2013 and was completed by January 2014. Since then, there appears to have been no activity that suggests the building has any on-going interior work.

Figure 2. The externally complete new control building and early construction of the new assembly building. 

Image © 2014 Airbus Defense & Space. All rights reserved. This image is not licensed for media use.

Infrastructure Upgrades

Roads are the main means of transportation for Tonghae since the facility is not supported by the railroad system. (Trucks are used for transport from the Kimchaek and Kilju railheads to the east.) The original road to Tonghae was a poor dirt road, but starting in 2011, sections were upgraded and several replaced, including a 2-kilometer road from the new buildings to the launch site under construction. However, the last 0.5 kilometers to the pad has hardly been started. While work on the new 0.4-kilometer section on the west side of a new bridge was not finished as of March 8, by May 31 it was nearly completed.

Over all, construction at the site is hampered by the absence of new roads. The completion of this section has not relieved the problem of fording the stream for the delivery of construction supplies to the work site at the new assembly building. Since no additional work has yet been done on the last section of new road out to the new launch site, using the old road requires fording the stream at two locations.

Figure 3. Completion of a section of the new road to Tonghae.

Images © 2014 Airbus Defense & Space. All rights reserved. This image is not licensed for media use.

Activity at the Older Facilities on the Range

While the old Tonghae launch pad was the site of the April 2009 Unha-2 SLV launch, the most recent imagery indicates little or no activity and none related to a future rocket test. Brush has grown in front of the flame trench since it was last used in April 2009 and has not been cut. The crane at the top of the gantry has moved to different positions. In imagery from May 4, there are two probable vehicles on the road just before it reaches the pad, probably showing that maintenance work continues.

Troops can be seen on the parade grounds at the barracks area adjacent to the motor pool in March and May 2014, reconfirming that the test range is manned. However, there was no activity seen at any of the other Tonghae facilities. This lack of activity indicates that no satellite, missile or engine tests are likely planned for this summer.

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