Commercial satellite images of a facility near Pyongyang suggest that North Korea prepares to launch a rocket or space rocket in the near future.
Images are of a site called Sanumdong – a facility where North Korea has collected some of its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and satellite launch missiles. Pictures taken on February 22 by DigitalGlobe and shared exclusively with NPR cars and trucks parked near the facility. Railway cars are located in a nearby railway, where two cranes are erected.
"When you put all this together, it's really how it looks when the North Koreans are building a rocket," said Jeffrey Lewis, head of the East Asia Nonproliferation Project at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, who has studied the pictures.
News of the business comes just a few days after other satellite images showed that North Korea quickly rebuilt a satellite launch facility on the country's west coast. Known as Sohae Satellite Launching Station, the site has been used for several space launch trials over the years, most recently in 2016. The Sohae plant, sometimes referred to as Dongchang-ri and Tongchang-ri, was partially dismantled after President Trump and North Korean leaders Kim Jong Un held their first summit in June 2018. Imagery taken on Wednesday suggests that it can work again.
Lewis assures that it is impossible to know if the North Koreans are preparing a military robot or space rocket. It is also impossible to know when a launch can happen. Additional images of the Sanumdong site taken today by another company, the San Francisco-based Planet, show that the vehicle's operations have died down and that one of the cranes has disappeared. This may mean that workers have paused work on an ICBM or rocket, perhaps while waiting for additional parts.
Or it could mean that a missile or rocket has already left the plant.
"According to the plan's pictures, I can definitely say the train has left the station," says Melissa Hanham, a North Korean expert with One Earth Future Foundation. "But I can unfortunately not use X-ray vision to see what is on the train and tell if it is a civilian space launch car or a military ICBM. "
A possible destination would be Sohae Satellite Launching Station. Lewis says there is no easy way to tell if a train has transported missiles or rocket parts to Sohae, as the railway yard has a roof over it to prevent the satellite from stumbling.
Lewis says he thinks it is likely that the North Koreans are preparing to launch a satellite in orbit. North Korean officials said they planned to launch two satellites, Lewis says, and he says Kim allegedly increased the Sanumdong site at the end of 2017 to prepare.
"We know that a space launch was one thing that North Koreans talked about doing," he says.
Lewis also says that such a launch should not necessarily be considered an aggressive move. Rockets used to launch satellites are usually unsuitable for use as long-distance missiles, he notes. "They would really do pretty bad ICBM," he says. "I think the US foreign policy has become too obsessed with North Korean space launches."
However, at a gathering on Thursday, a senior government official said the US would consider every launch, including a space launch, as a violation of goodwill between Trump and Kim. "Let me just say, in our opinion, the launch of a spacecraft from [Sohae] in our opinion would be inconsistent with the commitments made by the North Koreans," the official told the reporters.
"It seems that two parties are moving farther apart than closer," says Hanham. "I hope there is no US overreach to a space launch."