A 38 North exclusive with analysis by Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. and Jack Liu
Recent commercial satellite imagery of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station indicate upgrades are in progress at North Korea’s main space launch facility, including new road construction throughout the site, new guard or observation positions and excavation near the launch pad, the purpose of which is yet unclear.
Natural-color and infrared imagery indicate there have not been any unreported rocket engine tests during the past month, and no preparations for a new engine test or satellite launch are apparent. No other activity of significance is noted at the site.
Just north of the main entrance, launch positions from the March Scud-ER launch exercise are still visible, providing a unique look at the site six weeks after the test.
Low-level construction has been ongoing at the Sohae facility for the past three years and is an indicator of North Korea’s long-term commitment to the facility and its space launch programs.
New Construction Activity
Over the past few months, North Korea has constructed new roads throughout the Sohae launch facility. In October 2016, construction of a new road leading west along the ridge line from the VIP Observation Building to a newly graded circular position was first observed. The following month, upgrades began to a small dirt trail leading uphill from near the launch pad to the new location, turning it into what appears to be a utility right-of-way (for communications, electricity, etc.). By April 22, the utility right-of-way extended to the new location and another dirt trail, also running uphill from near the launch pad, was upgraded into a road. No equipment or construction activity is noted at the new position itself. While it difficult to determine the purpose of this new area, its location would suggest that it will be used as an observation, telemetry or guard position.
Figure 1. New road from the VIP Observation Building to a new observation or guard position.
Figure 2. New utility right-of-way to the new observation or guard position and excavation near the launch pad.
Between January and March 2017, construction of another new utility right-of-way began from the small support area, roughly 500 meters east of the launch pad, headed in the general direction of the vertical engine test stand. The exact purpose of this new right-of-way is unclear as there are no structures in this area and the Vertical Engine Test Stand is already served by a separate utility right-of-way.
Figure 3. Another new utility right-of-way has been constructed from a support area towards the engine test stand.
Just 50 meters southeast of the launch pad is a small open area (roughly 5,000 sq. meters) that was first excavated in 2014 during major upgrades to the gantry tower and launch pad. At that time, it appeared that the area was primarily being excavated for sand and gravel to build the new processing building on the south side of the pad. That activity ended by mid-2015 but resumed in March 2017. This renewed excavation lasted roughly six weeks and as of May 16 the site is dormant. It is too early to determine the exact purpose of this intermittent activity; however, the most plausible explanations are either excavation of sand and gravel for a construction project outside of the facility or early preparations for launch pad expansion.
Figure 4. Excavation near the launch pad resumed in March for approximately six weeks.
Figure 5. By May, excavation appears to have ceased and equipment was cleared from site.
With the exception of a small vehicle at the Horizontal Processing Building and some minor activity at the warehouse and support area, no further activity of note is observed throughout the facility.
Figure 6. Small vehicle observed near the Horizontal Processing Building.
Scud-ER Launch Site
Located 200 meters north of the main entrance to the Sohae launch facility is the site where North Korea’s Strategic Force conducted the March 6 multi-launch exercise, simultaneously launching four Scud-ER ballistic missiles. The area has recently been prepared for planting, but the remains of the launch positions and temporary access road are still visible in imagery from April 22. It is significant that there is no long-term ground scarring from missile exhaust at any of the launch positions, as it is a common misbelief that ballistic missiles of this type always leave large burn scars on the ground.
Figure 7. Launch positions from the March 6 Scud-ER launch still visible north of the Sohae facility.