North Korea’s Nuclear and Rocket Test Sites: Limited Activity, No Tests Likely in the Near Future

A 38 North exclusive with analysis by Jack Liu and Nick Hansen.

Despite recent tensions on the Korean peninsula over military exercises held by the United States and the Republic of Korea, commercial satellite imagery of North Korea’s Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site and the Sohae Satellite Launching Station indicate only activities associated with maintenance during the winter months are taking place. While both sites are likely at a sufficient state of readiness to move forward with a test if ordered to do so by the North Korean leadership, there are no signs of preparations. As a result, the North is unlikely to conduct a nuclear or missile test over the next few months.

At the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site, satellite imagery from February 27, 2015 shows only minor changes from a little over a month earlier. Specifically:

  • At the West Portal, at least three vehicles are now parked near the entrance to a new tunnel that has been under excavation. Digging appears to have stopped since there are no discernible changes to the spoil pile since mid-January 2015. Whether excavation will resume as warm weather returns is unclear. If it does not that may indicate the new tunnel is in the final stages of completion.
  • There are no tire tracks into the Main Support Area, the site of significant vehicle and other activity in the run-up to the 2013 nuclear test.
  • At the South Portal, tunnel entrances are now out of the shadows for the first time since September 2014. A few crates or boxes appear present, indicative of minor maintenance activity.

Figure 1. West Portal Activity.

Image before © 2015 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. Image after includes material Pleiades © CNES 2015. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected].

The Sohae Satellite Launching Station (Tongchang-ri) also appears to be dormant after a year of intense construction. Specifically:

  • There is no activity at the upgraded launch gantry, now able to handle a space launch vehicle (SLV) 20 percent longer than the Unha rocket, with snow not covering the pad and entry road. Some work remains to be completed, including a large building on the southeast end of the pad and an adjacent rail spur terminus.
  • The most active facility during 2014—with tests conducted of what was probably the KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) first and second stages—the rocket engine test stand has not been cleared of snow, although a crew appears to have been shoveling on the main road 100 meters north of the pad.
  • One of the largest projects completed in 2014 was the rushed construction of a complex, the function of which is yet unclear. It consists of a large domed building, a smaller domed building and a concrete circular pad.[1] There has been little new activity since construction was finished in August 2014, although snow removal on access roads, parking areas and the pad has continued throughout.

Figure 2. Minimal activity at the Sohae Launch Pad.

Note: image rotated. Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2015. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.
Note: image rotated. Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2015. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected]

Figure 3. The Engine Test Stand remains snow covered.

Note: image rotated. Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2015. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.
Note: image rotated. Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2015. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected]

Figure 4. Pavement installed around the large domed building.

Image before © 2015 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. Image after includes material Pleiades © CNES 2015. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected].

Figure 5. The adjacent pad has been paved.

Image before © 2015 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. Image after includes material Pleiades © CNES 2015. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected].

————————————————

[1] The large domed building has the appearance of an auditorium. The pad could be used to demonstrate or train mobile missile crews or simply for helicopter landings.

Stay informed about our latest
news, publications, & uploads:
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea