Magunpo Solid Rocket Engine Test Facility: Signs of Flooding

Recent commercial satellite imagery indicates minor flooding has occurred around North Korea’s Magunpo Solid Rocket Engine Test Facility, the country’s largest solid-fuel engine testing complex, over the past several weeks. No signs of test-related activities were apparent, although several trucks and trailers were present around late July and early August.

While there have been no enhancements made to the site in recent years and no new tests reported since 2017, North Korea’s ambitions to develop and deploy solid-fuel submarine-launched and intercontinental ballistic missiles will most certainly require extensive developmental testing of new solid-fueled rocket motors.

Background

The Magunpo facility is located on the coast of the East Korea Bay, immediately west of the Songchon River, which flows into the bay and separates Magunpo from the city of Hamhung. The test site was first identified in imagery in 2013 and confirmed by North Korean media in 2016 when Kim Jong Un was reported to have “guided” a test of a large solid-fuel rocket engine there. The last reported test conducted at this facility was in late 2017, although the site has been well maintained since then, and minor activity is occasionally observed.

Recent Activity

Unlike many of the other missile test centers in North Korea, which tend to be located at higher elevations, Magunpo is near sea level, and there have been recent tell-tale signs of flooding around the complex owing to the heavy monsoon rains.

At the horizontal test stand (the East Test Stand), water was seen pooled at the east end of the flame trench in early July and did not completely drain from the trench until after mid-August. Imagery from July 22 showed the area around the east side of the horizontal test stand to be muddy and partially flooded with vehicle tracks passing through it, and the adjacent fields to the east were covered in standing water. By July 25, temporary walkways had been installed to bridge the long, rectangular flame trench, allowing access to the north side of the stand. By September 12, the water was gone from the trench, and only one walkway remained in place at the end closest to the stand.

Figure 1. Flooded fields and vehicle tracks visible on the east side of the horizontal test stand on July 22. 

Image © 2022 Planet Labs, PBC cc-by-nc-sa 4.0. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected]

Figure 2. Flooding no longer visible in flame trench on September 12. 

Image © 2022 Planet Labs, PBC cc-by-nc-sa 4.0. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected]

Near the horizontal test stand, just east of the flame trench, evidence of earth grading appeared around July 12. While unclear, this appears to have been an effort to build up the east side of the test site to repel rising storm waters that might threaten the test stand. This graded area covers approximately 270 square meters, and a slightly raised berm extends along its south edge.

Imagery from early July showed tarps had been draped over the vertical engine test stand (the West Test Stand), presumably to protect the equipment within it. By July 27, the coverings had been removed, suggesting that the threat of rain damage had passed, although imagery from August 10 revealed that standing water was still present in the flame trench and adjacent fields.

Figure 3. Standing water observed in flame trench on imagery from August 10. 

Image © 2022 Planet Labs, PBC cc-by-nc-sa 4.0. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected]

General activity at the test site has been light over the past several years; thus, the presence of several trucks—including tractor-trailers in mid-summer—is noteworthy. Whether this was related to flood prevention activities, general site maintenance, or a possible engine test is unknown.

Figure 4. Vehicles present at test site. 

Image © 2022 Planet Labs, PBC cc-by-nc-sa 4.0. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected]
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