North Korea 'preparing to launch rocket', aerial photos suggest

Activity has been observed at former development and launch sites near Pyongyang and in west of country

Harry Cockburn
Saturday 09 March 2019 12:41
North Korean Scud-B Tactical Ballistic Missile on display at the Korean War Memorial Museum in Seoul, South Korea
North Korean Scud-B Tactical Ballistic Missile on display at the Korean War Memorial Museum in Seoul, South Korea

Satellite photographs suggest North Korea appears to be preparing to launch missiles or possibly a space rocket, less than two weeks after Donald Trump met with Kim Jong-un to try and bring an end to the country’s nuclear weapons programme.

Aerial images of a facility at Sanumdong near Pyongyang, show cars, lorries and cranes have arrived at the site. The factory was where North Korea built its first intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States.

The activity at Sanumdong comes after two US think tanks and South Korea’s spy agency said this week the North was also rebuilding a rocket launch site at Sohae in the west of the country.

Experts believe the activity is “probably connected”.

“When you put all that together, that’s really what it looks like when the North Koreans are in the process of building a rocket,” Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Project at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California told NPR.

Other experts are sceptical. Joel Wit from 38 North – a website which analyses activity in North Korea – told Reuters: “In the past there have been multiple reports about activity at this place (Sanumdong) that turned out to be false alarms.

“It could either be preparation for an eventual launch or not.”

The Sohae Satellite Launching Station has been used by North Korea for several space launch attempts in the past. It was last used in in 2016.

It was partially dismantled following Mr Trump and Mr Kim’s 2018 summit, but recent photographs suggest it is now fully operational again.

On Friday Mr Trump said he would be disappointed if Pyongyang were to resume weapons testing and reiterated his belief in his good relationship with North Korean leader Mr Kim despite the collapse last week of their second summit.

“I would be surprised in a negative way if he did anything that was not per our understanding. But we’ll see what happens,” Mr Trump told reporters. “I would be very disappointed if I saw testing.”

Experts including Mr Lewis have suggested the activity could be part of a satellite launch. But the US has said it would still consider this a breach of the agreement between Mr Trump and Mr Kim.

A “senior State Department official” told NPR the US would regard any launch, including a space launch, as a violation of the goodwill between Mr Trump and Mr Kim.

“Let me just say, in our judgment, launch of a space launch vehicle from [Sohae] in our view would be inconsistent with the commitments that the North Koreans have made,” the official said.

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