(From 38 North, US-Korea Institute at SAIS)
By Jack Liu and Joseph S. Bermudez
Despite speculation that Pyongyang intends to conduct its fourth long-range rocket launch on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea in October, with less than two months to go, recent commercial satellite imagery still shows no signs of launch preparations.
As of mid-August, a rail-mounted structure, intended to transport the space launch vehicle (SLV) stages and other equipment from a new processing building on the launch pad to the gantry tower has been completed and aligned with that building. Whether that activity is related to continued work to complete the structures—such as installing equipment inside and checking out the buildings—or launch preparations remains unclear.
While there are no visible indicators of launch preparations at the rest of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station—such as a general increase in the level of activity—if Pyongyang were to decide to move forward with a long-range SLV test and the new facilities were not yet fully operational, the North could still utilize existing facilities to support a launch.
One significant objective of North Korean construction efforts during the past eight months has been to degrade the ability of outsiders to monitor launch preparations through the building of a covered rail station, an underground rail spur to the launch pad and the movable processing structure that would receive deliveries from that spur. Aside from making it more difficult to gather information on Pyongyang’s SLVs and test preparations, these activities may also reduce the amount of warning time that an SLV launch is about to take place.
Recent imagery also indicates that the North Koreans have conducted an engine test at the vertical engine test stand since late July. Moreover, they are installing two new, larger, storage buildings for fuel and oxidizer. When complete, they will provide more than double the storage capacity of the existing structures, suggesting that the North Koreans are developing a capability to test larger, more capable engines. Read more