Recent commercial satellite imagery of North Korea’s Sohae Satellite Launching Station shows continued construction and expansion activities continue around both the main complex and coastal areas, making progress against the plans directed by Kim Jong Un more than 18 months ago. Since May, North Korea has tried two times to launch a new military reconnaissance satellite into orbit. Although both attempts failed, the rapid succession of launches underscores the urgency Kim has placed on the satellite program and the heightened importance of the Sohae complex.
A third satellite launch attempt is expected sometime this month. No signs of launch preparations are observed in the latest imagery; however, no signatures were obvious leading up to the previous two launches either. For both previous satellite launch attempts, North Korea notified the international community several days in advance of its plans, although it faced criticism for not following proper procedures. No new notifications have yet been made. Should Pyongyang follow the same pattern for this new launch, it is presumably still at least several days away.
Coastal Launch Pad
The new coastal launch pad, rapidly constructed and completed in late May, was used for the previous two satellite launch attempts. After the failed launch in late August, the large retractable shelter, which covers almost half of the pad, was pulled back in early September revealing the strongback launching mechanism covered with blue protective sheeting. Alongside it, construction work or possibly repair work appeared to be taking place.
The retractable shelter was moved back into place sometime between the morning of September 8 and the afternoon of September 9 where it has remained. Because the shelter covers the strongback launching mechanism, it is impossible to monitor the arrival of the launch vehicle or other launch preparations.
Figure 2a. Retractable shelter pulled back on coastal launch pad to reveal covered strongback launching mechanism on imagery from September 6, 2023. Image © 2023 Planet Labs, PBC cc-by-nc-sa 4.0. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected].; Figure 2b. Retractable shelter pulled back to its initial position on imagery from October 11, 2023. Image Pleiades NEO © Airbus DS 2023. For media options, please contact [email protected].
South of the coastal launch pad, a new road spur is under construction coming off the new coastal roadway and extends eastward, terminating near the sea in a forested area. Its purpose is unclear though it is likely to service a yet-to-be built launch-related facility, and thus merits monitoring.
The latest image provides a new view of the probable inspection station located just before the coastal launch pad and highlighted in our last analysis. In the latest image, what had appeared to be two white painted strips at the sides can now be clearly viewed and seems to have some height, as evidenced by the sun shadow. The center white strip, however, appears to be flush with the pavement suggesting it is a road marking. The purpose of the station is unclear, but it could hold scanning equipment and/or a vehicle scale.
Main Launch Pad
At the main launch pad, planking has been applied to a retractable ramp that leads from the assembly building to the rail-mounted transfer structure. The ramp, first observed in late June, can be articulated diagonally, apparently to better facilitate component transfers. The transfer structure has remained in view since June.
Nearby, construction continues at a slow pace on what appears to be two bunkered oxidizer and fuel storage buildings.
Work continues on the road tunnel that links the new probable assembly and storage building inside the secure Sohae compound to the coastal road. Multiple personnel and vehicles are visible at both tunnel entrances.
At the East Tunnel entrance, the road has been connected to the freshly-paved coastal road, but the tunnel road has yet to be paved. At the West Tunnel entrance, work continues on the road which will connect to the suspected new assembly and storage building and main, north-south launch station road.
At the probable new assembly and storage building, roofing or flooring for a second story was installed in August over the smaller rooms that run the length of the north side of the building. In addition, drainage pipes were laid by July 5, and by July 18, concrete blocks were being installed over the pipes, presumably so water can pass below where a road will likely connect the tunnel to the new building and the rest of the Sohae complex.
At the old Horizontal Assembly Building, in the courtyard on its southeast side, 12 blue cylindrical storage tanks had arrived by July 18 and have remained stored there since. Their final destination within the complex is unknown. They are of the same size and appearance as those at the new logistics support facility located on the east side of the complex, just off the coastal roadway.
Vertical Engine Test Stand
In mid-July, at the Vertical Engine Test Stand (VETS), two vehicles were observed on the apron and two additional trucks and a mobile crane were observed in the bunkered support area. In addition, all vegetation had been cleared from below the flame exhaust bucket, suggesting a pending engine test, or that one had just been completed.
At the observation and tracking station located on a mountain side overlooking the VETS, a probable radome, parabolic tracking dish, and a truck were observed on July 18. On August 1, the radome had been mounted on top of the tracking station, and presumably, the dish is now located inside the dome.
In August, the road extension to the possible missile silo area was partially paved.
Work is also continuing at the new seaport, located at the southeast end of the Sohae peninsula. Additional large concrete blocks have been moved into place, presumably to form the base for a berthing quay. Because the daily tides affect access to the new quay, barges and floating cranes can approach shore for only a limited periods each day. It is assumed that once the quay is completed, dredging operations will begin to ensure that vessels can enter the port regardless of the tides.