The Sohae satellite launch facility is located in Tongchang-ri, North Pyongan province and served as the primary missile engine testing facility and as the launch site for both the country’s successful satellite launches. An agreement between the DPRK and the US saw efforts to dismantle the site in the wake of the (largely symbolic) agreement between the two sides at the 2018 summit in Singapore. The main engine test stand was demolished and further work was being carried out to prepare the site for international inspection. This was confirmed by the intelligence community in the Republic of Korea in October 2018 when they announced that they had gathered evidence that suggested the DPRK was preparing Sohae and Punggye-ri (the primary nuclear testing site) for a visit by international inspectors. This positive outlook was called into question when satellite photos of Tongchang-ri were released showing reconstruction efforts.
According to analyst group 38North:
“On the launch pad, the rail-mounted transfer building is being reassembled. Two support cranes are observed at the building, the walls have been erected and a new roof added.”38 North
“At the engine test stand, it appears that the engine support structure is being reassembled. Two cranes are present and construction materials are spread across the stand’s apron. New roofs have been installed on the fuel and oxidizer buildings…”38 North
Launchpad at Sohae / 2019
So what is the end-game here? Well one of the key things to keep in mind is that we don’t know what the DPRK plans to do with regards to this site. It seems that after a year of cultivating a statesman-like persona on the world stage Marshall Kim Jong Un is unlikely to break the voluntary moratorium on missile testing any time soon; at least not without a significant build-up of anti-US rhetoric beforehand. One potential way around this issue of public relations is pushing forward with their civilian space program. The previous satellite launch in 2016 drew international condemnation as many viewed the mission as a thinly-veiled missile test. Despite this precedent it would be much easier to defend a civilian launch than an ICBM test and would still provide data on new technology to help engineers advance the missile program.
Alternatively the reconstruction could be an effort to show the US administration that it still holds the capability to launch WMDs and to remind Washington officials that the moratorium on testing is voluntary. The potential cost of launching a missile from the site is likely much higher than any potential payoff with some US officials threatening to impose more sanctions on Pyongyang if they fail to continue with negotiations.
At this stage it’s impossible to deduce the exact reason as to why the site is being rebuilt. Whether or not there is any direct link to the failure at Hanoi or whether it is part of a broader strategy from the top policy makers in the Worker’s Party is up for debate. Due to the well publicised failure at Hanoi the DPRK is very much in the media spotlight as the world waits for Pyongyang’s next move.
In other news of the week:
Marshall Kim Jong Un returned from his state visit to Vietnam arriving back in Pyongyang central railway station. He was greeted by high ranking officials of the WPK Central Committee and the Premier and President of the Presidium Pak Pong Ju and Kim Yong Nam respectively.
Officials greeting Marshall Kim Jong Un on his arrival into Pyongyang
KCNA coverage of the return to Pyongyang: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7LFbxGnibnE
38North article on the Tongchang-ri rebuilding: https://www.38north.org/2019/03/sohae030519/