Recent commercial satellite imagery indicates that North Korea has completed a yearlong project to upgrade its main satellite launching station, which is widely believed to be a test site for its intercontinental ballistic missile program, a United States research institute said on Wednesday.
Construction has been underway at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in Tongchang-ri in northwestern North Korea since late last year. It includes modifying the gantry tower and launchpad there, which analysts said would give North Korea a facility to launch a longer-range rocket that can carry a heavier payload.
North Korea successfully launched its Unha-3 space launch vehicle from the Sohae facility in December 2012, putting a small satellite into orbit. The launch increased fears that the country was inching toward acquiring the ability to build an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead.
“North Korea is now ready to move forward with another rocket launch,” the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University said in a report published on its website on Wednesday. “Should a decision be made soon to do so in Pyongyang — and we have no evidence that one has — a rocket could be launched by the end of 2014.”
If such a decision is made, the most likely candidate remains the existing Unha-3 rocket, it said, since “a much larger rocket, reportedly under development, is at least several years from becoming operational.”
The U.S.-Korea Institute is one of the American organizations that monitor North Korea’s nuclear and satellite launching sites using satellite images. In its latest report, it said that imagery from mid-September showed tanks near the propellant storage buildings at the launchpad for the first time since the 2012 launch. The exact purpose of this activity remains unclear, it said.
The institute said that technicians at the Sohae launch site had also been conducting a series of engine tests for North Korea’s KN-08 road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile over the past couple years. The KN-08 has never been test-launched, although it has been featured in military parades in Pyongyang.
The U.S.-Korea Institute said it had so far captured no sign of engine tests for a new rocket, bigger than the Unha-3, which North Korea was said to be developing.
North Korea’s launching of a rocket in 2012 and its third nuclear test in February last year prompted the United Nations to tighten sanctions against the country. Under United Nations resolutions, North Korea was banned from testing technology used to develop ballistic missiles or nuclear weapons. North Korea has vowed to build more powerful rockets and more sophisticated nuclear weapons as a deterrent against the United States.