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North Korea is rebuilding a long-range missile site, images show

An intercontinental ballistic missile is launched in North Korea. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service)
March 06, 2019

New satellite images show that North Korea is swiftly rebuilding its long-range missile facility after vowing to destroy the site last year.

Rebuilding efforts have begun on the Sohae Satellite Launch Facility, once a key site in North Korea’s long-range ballistic missile development program, satellite images from March 2 analyzed by the Center for Strategic Studies’ Beyond Parallel project and 38 North revealed, NBC News reported Tuesday.

Sohae, also known as Tongchang-ri, was also used to launch satellites using similar technology to its long-range ballistic missiles, and activity at the site raises red flags.

“This renewed activity, taken just two days after the inconclusive Hanoi Summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, may indicate North Korean plans to demonstrate resolve in the face of U.S. rejection of North Korea’s demands at the summit to lift five U.N. Security Council sanctions enacted in 2016-2017,” analysts told NBC News.

Rebuilding activity on the site’s launch pad and missile test engine were estimated to have begun as early as mid-February – potentially before the second summit took place between Kim and Trump.

Researchers called the activity “deliberate and purposeful,” noting that the site was relatively dormant since August 2018. Only minor activity was observed since then, mostly consisting of equipment installation and vehicle movement.

“The activity they are undertaking now is consistent with preparations for a test, though the imagery thus far does not show a missile being moved to the launch pad,” said Victor Cha, one of the Beyond Parallel researchers.

“The activity on the ground shows us that they do have a (nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile) capability that is not just developmental, but in the prototype phase. They’ve already tested a few of these and it looks like they’re preparing the launch pad for another act,” Cha added.

The new observations at Sohae are a stark contrast to those made in summer of 2018.

In late July 2018, satellite images and a report from 38 North showed that North Korea was working to dismantle the Sohae site, as it vowed to do at the first Trump-Kim summit a month earlier.

The images showed dismantling efforts on the rail-mounted processing building and rocket engine test stand, along with other dismantlement activities.

“Since these facilities are believed to have played an important role in the development of technologies for the North’s intercontinental ballistic missile program, these efforts represent a significant confidence-building measure on the part of North Korea,” 38 North analyst Joseph Bermudez Jr. said in the report at the time.

However, some experts remained skeptical, noting that the site was not a significant step in denuclearization in light of the ongoing activities at other missile test sites.

It’s unclear what North Korea’s plans are with the rebuilding activities, or what it may mean for ongoing denuclearization talks with the U.S.