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A US Election Surprise? Possible but Unlikely

By
04 November 2016


A 38 North exclusive with analysis by Jack Liu

While there has been speculation of a North Korean satellite launch or nuclear test occurring during the run-up to the US Presidential election, the evidence from commercial satellite imagery of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station and the Punggye-ri nuclear test site suggests it’s possible but unlikely.

Of the two facilities, the Punggye-ri nuclear test site requires more careful observation. Recent commercial satellite imagery indicates that activity continues at the North Portal, the location of the September 9 nuclear test. However, the purpose of this activity remains unclear and could include collecting post-test data, sealing the portal or preparing for another test. While there does not appear to be activity at other areas around the test complex, the presence of tunnels at the West and South Portals also means that North Korea could possibly conduct another test at these sites with little notice.

Conducting a satellite launch seems less likely in the near future. Imagery indicates that there has been little activity at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station during the month of October since the large liquid-fuel engine test in September. While it is impossible to observe whether a space launch vehicle is hidden within the gantry tower’s environmental cover, imagery suggests that the launch pad is clear. The movable environmental shed at the vertical engine test stand has remained in place since September indicating that the North could either be preparing for another engine test or simply cleaning up after the previous test. Finally, there are no observable activities at other facilities at Sohae that would be involved in supporting an impending space launch or rocket engine test.

Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site

North Portal

In commercial satellite imagery from October 29, the large canopy in front of the North Portal, first spotted in August, remains in place. There has been notable movement of probable boxes or material around the canopy and the main building throughout the month, the purpose of which is unclear. In the period from October 26 to 29, the amount of material around the North Portal increased, and there appears to be mining carts near the entrance. It is possible that this material is crushed rock or sand that could be used to seal off the tunnel used for the September test. Other possibilities include tunnel maintenance or preparations for another nuclear detonation.

Figure 1. Increased activity around the North Portal throughout October.

Other Areas

The mining cart positions and furrows on the West Portal spoil pile appear unchanged since early October, indicating that tunnel excavation operations have not yet restarted. The South Portal is now in now deep in shadow making it difficult to observe.

Little activity has been seen at either the Main Support Area or the South Command Center throughout the month of October.

Sohae Satellite Launching Station

Launch Pad

Throughout October, there has been no evidence of launch preparations underway and as of October 29, the pad appears clear. While it is impossible to tell from satellite imagery if a space launch vehicle hidden inside the gantry tower’s environmental cover, it is unlikely this is the case given the lack of general activity around the Sohae facility.

Vertical Engine Test Stand

The environmental shed has been set up against the vertical engine test stand since the September. This could indicate continued cleanup or refitting operations from the previous test or a new test is being prepped.

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