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North Korea’s Sohae Satellite Launching Station: Scud-ER Launch Site Visible; Activity at Vertical Engine Test Stand

By
17 March 2017


A 38 North exclusive with analysis by Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr. and Jack Liu.

Summary

Recent commercial satellite imagery of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station shows the probable location of the recent Scud-ER launch. Inside the facility, the environmental cover has been moved to the Vertical Test Stand, either for maintenance or preparation for a new rocket engine test. (The exact purpose is unclear from imagery alone.) While there is almost no activity at the rest of the test facility, it remains fully capable of conducting a launch at any time with limited warning. Identifying launch or engine test preparations remain a challenge due to the North’s extensive concealment and deception practices.

SCUD-ER Launch Area Visible

On March 6, 2017, the Korean People’s Army’s Strategic Force units conducted a simultaneous launch exercise of four Scud-ER ballistic missiles. South Korean and Japanese sources indicated that these launches took placed from the Sohae Satellite Launch Facility.[1] The following day KCTV carried a report and video of the launch. The report, while not specifically identifying the location of the exercise, stated “Kim Jong Un…supervised a ballistic rocket launching drill of Hwasong artillery units of the Strategic Force of the KPA [from] an observation post…and gave an order to start the drill.[2]

Commercial satellite imagery from March 13 shows that the launch site for the Scud-ER test was immediately outside the Sohae facility entrance and checkpoint, along the main access road from Tongchang-ri, one kilometer to the north. Four semi-prepared launch positions are visible—two to the east and two to the west of the railroad tracks. A temporary road, with gravel approaches over the railroad tracks, was built to provide access to the positions on the west side of the tracks.  While ground scarring from the missiles’ exhaust is readily visible seven days after the test, it is a common misbelief that ballistic missiles of this type always leave large burn marks on the ground. Kim Jong Un “guided” and observed the exercise from the Sohae facility’s VIP Observation Building located 3 kilometers to the south.

Figure 1. Locations of the March 6 Scud-ER launches.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2017. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2017. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Figure 2. Photo of the launch in relation to Sohae facility entrance.

(Photo: Choson TV.)

(Photo: Choson TV.)

Figure 3. Photo of the launch in relation to housing construction projects outside the secure Sohae facility.

(Photo: Choson TV.)

(Photo: Choson TV.)

Figure 4. Kim Jong Un’s viewing position was located between the VIP Observation Building and Support Building.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2017. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2017. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Figure 5. Photo showing stairs of Observation Building in the background.

(Photo: Choson TV.)

(Photo: Choson TV.)

Figure 6. Photo showing Support building in the background.

(Photo: Choson TV.)

(Photo: Choson TV.)

Environmental Shelter Moved at Vertical Engine Test Stand

Imagery indicates that the rail-mounted environmental shelter has been moved up against the engine test stand since February 5, either for maintenance or to position a rocket engine for testing. (The North Koreans installed the environmental shelter during late-2015 to conceal detection of test preparations.) A small collection of equipment or shipping crates, not present in imagery from January 9 or February 5, is now visible. Natural-color and color-infrared imagery indicate that there have been no unreported tests during the past five weeks. No vehicles or personnel are in the area.

Figure 7. Environmental shelter has been moved back up to the engine test stand.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2017. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2017. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

No Activity at the Launch Pad

Imagery indicates no activity at the launch pad, associated fuel and oxidizer buildings or processing building. The environmental shelter covering the work platforms on the gantry tower remain closed—as they have been since the last launch—precluding observation of any activity inside. The lack of activity in the immediate area and throughout the facility suggests that a launch is not imminent. However, the launch pad probably remains capable of supporting a launch at any time.

Figure 8. No activity visible at the launch pad.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2017. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2017. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Very Limited Activity Elsewhere

With the exception of some minor continuing work at the warehouse and support area, no activity of note is visible throughout the rest of the facility (e.g., horizontal processing building, VIP housing, NADA observatory, etc.). No vehicles, and very few personnel, appear present. This lack of activity extends to the small housing developments outside the main entrance.

 

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[1] Park, Ju-min and Kaneko, Kaori, “North Korea fires four ballistic missiles into sea, angering Japan and South,” Reuters, March 6, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-missiles-idUSKBN16C0YU.

[2] “Kim Jong Un Supervises Ballistic Rocket Launching Drill of Hwasong Artillery Units,” KCTV, March 7, 2017.

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