North Korea is still not showing any concrete signs of preparations to launch a long-range rocket despite persisting speculation the communist nation could do so next month, a U.S. research institute said Thursday.
“While speculation that North Korea intends to launch a long-range space launch vehicle (SLV) on the 70th anniversary of the Korean Workers’ Party in October continues, it is still not possible to determine whether Pyongyang will conduct such a launch using commercial satellite imagery,” 38 North said in a report.
Satellite imagery taken of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station from August 27 to September 1 show that a movable structure on the launch pad, which is designed to transfer rocket stages and components to the gantry tower, has shifted back and forth, but it is hard to see that as a sign of launch preparations, it said.
“That movement may have occurred for a number of reasons ranging from testing the recently completed movable structure to launch preparations. Besides the fact that the general low level of activity throughout the facility suggests a launch is not going to occur over the next few weeks, in the case of a possible October launch, it is probably still too soon to move the SLV to the gantry,” it said.
Should the North intend to launch a rocket, there would be indicators of launch preparations for a few weeks, 38 North said, such as a significant increase in fuel loading and pressure testing activity at the fuel and oxidizer building.
Recent imagery also showed construction at the vertical engine test stand that will allow the testing of larger, more capable rocket engines is proceeding rapidly. That work, however, “is unrelated to the question of whether the North will conduct a new launch in the near future,” it said.
“Imagery from mid-August through September 1 indicates that construction of two new storage buildings for fuel and oxidizer continues at a rapid pace, with the roof of one building completed. Additional construction vehicles and supplies are present throughout the area. At this rate, work may be complete by October. It is likely these new buildings will support future testing of more capable SLV engines, another sign that Pyongyang intends to field larger SLVs in the future. Moreover, the speed of construction may indicate that the North intends to start testing these engines in the near future. It does not, however, mean that Pyongyang intends to conduct a space launch soon,” 38 North said on its website.
North Korea is believed to have developed advanced ballistic missile technologies through a series of test launches, including a 2012 launch that succeeded in putting a satellite into orbit. That test is considered the most successful so far.
That test sparked fears that the North has moved closer to ultimately developing nuclear-tipped missiles that could potentially reach the United States mainland. The country has so far conducted three underground nuclear tests: in 2006, 2009 and 2013.