Sohae Satellite Launch Station: Site Upgrades Begin in Earnest

Recent commercial satellite imagery of North Korea’s Sohae Satellite Launching Station, its showcase rocket launching and large, liquid fuel engine testing complex, indicates the early stages of implementing the modernization directives given by Kim Jong Un during this site visit earlier this year. 

Imagery from September 6 shows a significant amount of material and construction equipment on and around the rocket launch pad. At the Vertical Engine Test Stand (VETS), vegetation has been cleared from the exhaust flame bucket area, which could indicate an unannounced test has recently taken place, as previously reported. However, the signatures are not as pronounced as they have been after previous tests. The stand has since been cleared of vehicles and equipment, possibly indicating early preparations for refurbishment efforts.  

Throughout the complex—both inside and outside of the secure perimeter—multiple workers’ housing and support areas have been erected and roadwork is underway, suggesting large-scale construction is planned.  

Launch Pad

In imagery from September 6, a significant amount of construction material is on the rocket launch pad, concentrated on the south side near the base of the launch tower. Immediately south of the pad, the roof of a large, bunkered buildingprobably for fuel storagehas been removed, suggesting the structure will either be expanded or completely razed. Two smaller support buildings have also been razed since August. Additionally, the camouflage on the roof of a long, partiallybunkered building has been removed, likely also for either refurbishment or razing.   

Figure 1. Significant activity at the launch pad.

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Vertical Engine Test Stand

At the VETS, light scarring can be seen in the flame exhaust bucket along with ground and vegetation scarring leading from this area. These signatures suggest a recent unannounced engine test may have taken place, as suggested by earlier reports. However, the signatures are not as pronounced as they have been after previous tests. The support vans and other equipment that had been on the apron since at least December 2019 were removed in late August. The apron remains clear as of September 6. Previously, the vans and equipment have remained in place post-engine testing. Their recent movement may indicate construction at the VETS may be forthcoming.

Figure 2. Cleared vegetation at the VETS and apron cleared.

December 15, 2019. Overview of VETS with retractable environmental shelter rolled back. Image © 2019 Planet Labs, Inc. cc-by-sa 4.0.
Fig 2b. Cleared vegetation at the VETS and apron cleared. Image © 2022 Planet Labs, PBC cc-by-nc-sa 4.0. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected]

Support and Infrastructure

While little activity was noted immediately after Kim’s site visit in March, construction started to pick up just before summer. By June 15, work had begun on a new workers’ housing and construction support area along the coastline, immediately east of the complex outside of the perimeter security road. That area continues to expand along with road improvements.    

Figure 3. Expansion of coastal workers’ housing and support area.

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Construction had also begun on a new train depot just north of the main security entrance to the complex, where a 110-meter-long warehouse has been erected adjacent to a new loading platform.

Figure 4. Construction around new rail depot near entrance.

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By June 25, a second workers’ housing and support area had been erected inside the secure complex, in an area approximately 0.5 kilometers northwest of the rocket launch pad.    

Figure 5. New workers’ housing and support area northwest of launch pad.

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Other activities observed around the complex include the excavation of a large rectangular area, approximately 30 x 80 meters, on the loop road east of the VIP housing area. A second, similarly-sized excavation appears SSE of this area, outside of the perimeter road. The alignment of the two excavated areas suggest they will be joined in the future. Given the mountainous terrain, these entrances may indicate preparations to excavate a tunnel to connect the two.   

Figure 6. Possible preparations for tunnel excavation.

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

New construction is also observed just north of the rocket launch pad, where a building is now located atop a hill that previously was just a bare circular area. This may be used for instrumentation or tracking equipment. Another area has been cleared where the spur road branches from the main site road, possibly for the construction of an additional support building.  

Figure 7. Possible new tracking facility.

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Further north along the main road, across from the National Aerospace Development Administration (NADA) administrative buildings, an area has been cleared, presumably for additional building construction. And finally, a long, road-like trail has been cleared, following the existing coastal road. Whether this is for a new road or will serve another purpose is unclear. 

Figure 8. New construction area.

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