Recent commercial satellite imagery of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station reveals no observable signs of activity related to the launch pad or engine test stand. This has been the case throughout 2020, although the complex has been maintained at a test-ready state, and signs of daily life continue to be observed. Despite the relatively low levels of activity at the Sohae this year, the North Koreans just held their annual symposium on space science and technology, showcasing their “scientific and technological successes” in “aerospace development for peaceful purposes,” and work to “accelerate the development of space science and technology.” Among the many issues examined at the symposium, special attention was paid to achievements that have helped to increase satellite lifetimes, stability and accuracy.
A review of the key facilities within the complex—including its launch pad, the Vertical Engine Test Stand (VETS), the Horizontal Assembly Building and the administration and security headquarters—showed no signs of vehicular or test-related activity. However, each location appears neat and well maintained.
Sohae, like many of the large strategic complexes in North Korea, also demonstrates activity related to daily life, especially agricultural activities. The presence of growing fields, the harvesting of crops and the drying of grain are common, and in fact, the drying of grain and/or assembly of kimchi pots can often be seen on many of the large, dry open surfaces, such as parking lots, tarmacs, roadways, and occasionally, rooftops.
On imagery from November 29, grain was observed being dried on the complex’s helipad. A number of personnel were also present, along with possible packing materials and two probable cargo trucks. More grain was observed piled on the west end of a parking lot on a stem road leading to one of the observation stations in a pattern suggesting it was in the process of being removed. In an area just west of the rail station and Horizontal Assembly Building, harvested crops were baled in rows in an adjacent field.
Figure 1. Grain drying on helipad; trucks, personnel and probable packing material present.
Note: False-color infrared imagery
Figure 2. Baled crops and drying grain.
Note: False-color infrared imagery
Infrared (IR) Coverage
False-color infrared imagery provides a unique view of the Sohae complex. The health of the vegetation is portrayed in tones of red, which enables a rapid assessment of the surrounding forests and farmlands. Now well into fall, there is a lot of brown to reddish-brown coloring in and around the complex, which is consistent with this time of year when much of the vegetation has lost its leaves, and the fields have been harvested and/or gone dormant. Trees that have yet to fully lose their leaves display a more vivid red.
The IR imagery also reveals key insights into recent activity, or the lack thereof, at the launch pad and VETS. Note that the vegetation below the flame buckets for both the launch pad and the VETS remains healthy, a sign that a test is neither imminent (as the vegetation would have removed from the vicinity) nor has occurred recently (as the vegetation would have been scarred along the exhaust path). Furthermore, the obvious health of the surrounding vegetation dispels a rumor that a recent forest fire had threatened the Sohae complex, particularly the VETS.
Figure 3. Close up of Launch Pad.
Figure 4. Close up of Vertical Engine Test Stand.