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Suspicious Activity at North Korea’s Sohae Satellite Launching Station

By
28 January 2016


A 38 North exclusive with analysis by Jack Liu

Summary

Recent commercial satellite imagery shows a range of low-level activities at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station (also referred to as “Tongchang-dong”)—at the launch pad, covered railway station, VIP housing area, launch control bunker and National Aerospace Development Administration (NADA) buildings and helipad—that indicate Pyongyang is in the early stages of preparation for launching a space launch vehicle (SLV). If that is the case, a rocket test in the coming week is unlikely.

However, it is important to note that there is a high level of uncertainty about this judgment for a number of reasons and Pyongyang may be further along in its preparations. First, the gantry tower work platforms are covered by an environmental cover and are folded forward, obscuring any view of whether a SLV is inside or not. Second, the movable transfer structure could easily allow for stages to be assembled and transferred to the gantry tower during periods of darkness or heavy cloud cover. Moreover, since the entire launch pad area is now clear of snow, any movement by the structure cannot be determined. Third, commercial satellite imagery coverage of the test site is not continuous and therefore observers only have snapshots of activity at the launch pad.

If North Korea follows previous pre-launch preparation practices, we would expect to see in the coming days increased site-wide activity, traffic at the fuel/oxidizer storage bunkers, activity at the launch pad and the presence of tracking equipment.

Activity at Sohae also suggests a possible rocket engine test is under preparation at the vertical engine test stand. A recently completed large rail-mounted environmental structure large enough to shelter the first stage of rockets, such as the Unha space launch vehicle or the Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile or a new engine of similar size, has been moved up to the test stand. While this may simply be testing the ability of the shelter to move it on the rails, a more likely alternative is that an engine test is being prepared.

Figure 1. Overview of Sohae Satellite Launching Station.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2016. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2016. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

The Launch Pad

Recent commercial satellite imagery indicates a low level of activity at the Sohae launch pad including:

  • A January 25, 2016 image shows three objects at the base of the gantry tower that are either vehicles or equipment. Personnel are visible on the launch pad tarmac.
  • A January 18, 2016 image captured a single truck at the preparation building on the pad. The truck left a set of tracks that can be traced back to the covered rail station, indicating that it was delivering cargo or personnel to the launch pad.
  • The newly erected fuel/oxidizer storage bunkers appear to have been externally completed by December 28, 2015. However, there may be continuing installation of tanks and related pumping equipment internally.
  • The snow that covered most of the launch pad area in the December 28 image has been cleared during last four weeks through a combination of manual clearing and snow melt. This includes the access road to the fuel/oxidizer bunkers.

Figure 2. Activity at the Sohae Launch Pad.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2016. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Covered Rail Station

Imagery from January 11 and 18 of the covered rail station shows tire tracks in the snow from vehicles moving to and from the station suggesting that material or personnel had been delivered to the site. Some of these tracks show movement between the rail station and the launch pad. Since the roads throughout most of the facility are clear in the January 25 image it is not possible to determine if this activity has continued.

VIP Housing Area and Possible Payload Processing Building

In both the December 28 and January 25 images the roads and parking areas at the VIP housing area and adjacent satellite control building are clear of snow. In addition, several vehicles are present in the housing parking areas in the more recent image. In the past, this has generally only occurred when an engine test or rocket launch were being prepared.

A nearby building—used in the past for satellite control but now possibly being used for payload processing—is in active use. A new parking area has been built here during the past four months and the area paved.

Figure 3. Roads cleared and vehicles present at the VIP housing.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2016. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2016. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Launch Control Bunker, NADA Facilities and Helipad

While a cleared footpath at the launch control bunker was seen in the December 28 image, by January 25 traffic in this location, including vehicles, appears to have increased. At the large NADA auditorium, support building and helicopter pad in the northwest corner of the facility, the helicopter pad, typically snow covered as in the December 28 image, is being cleared on January 25. At the smaller support building, the parking area that was partially cleared in the earlier image is now completely cleared of snow. The roads to all three facilities are also clear of snow. While the purpose of these buildings is unclear, all of these activities indicate that they are in use or are being prepared for use.

Figure 4. Helipad being cleared at the NADA facilities.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2016. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Possible Engine Test at Vertical Engine Test Stand

Activity suggests a possible rocket engine test is under preparation at the vertical engine test stand. In the December 28 image, the construction of a large rail-mounted environmental shelter at stand was progressing. As of January 25, it appears complete and has been moved up to the engine test stand. The size of this structure is large, measuring approximately 11-meters-wide, 29-meters-long and 11-meters-high—large enough to house in a concealed manner the first stage of a rocket such as the Musudan intermediate range ballistic missile, the Unha space launch vehicle or a new engine of similar size. While this may simply be testing the ability of the shelter to move it on the rails, a more likely alternative is that an engine test is being prepared.

Figure 5. New structure complete at Engine Test Stand.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2016. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Conclusion

The level of activity throughout the Sohae facility at the launch pad, covered rail station, VIP housing area, launch control bunker and NADA facilities (particularly the helipad) raise justifiable concerns that North Korea may be preparing for the launch of a space launch vehicle. Moreover, the level of activity throughout the site is unlikely to be justified by what appears to be an imminent rocket engine test. If Pyongyang is preparing for a rocket launch, available imagery indicates that a launch is not imminent and that the North may be at an early stage of preparation.

However, there is a high level of uncertainty about this judgment for a number of reasons. First, the gantry tower work platforms are covered by an environmental cover and are folded forward, obscuring any view of whether a rocket is inside or not. Second, the movable transfer structure could easily allow for stages to be assembled and transferred to the gantry tower during periods of darkness or heavy cloud cover. In the earlier image the structure did not appear to have moved since the snowfall observed in a December 4 image as its tracks remained snow covered. Since the entire launch pad area is now clear of snow, any movement by the structure cannot be determined. Third, commercial satellite imagery coverage of the test site is not continuous and therefore observers only have snapshots of activity at the launch pad.

If North Korea follows previous pre-launch preparation practices, we would expect to see in the coming days increased site-wide activity, traffic at the fuel/oxidizer storage bunkers, activity at the launch pad and the presence of tracking equipment.

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Credit for photo of young North Korean girl: T.M. All rights reserved, used with permission.