TOKYO — North Korea has begun rebuilding work on a satellite rocket launch pad and engine test site, in an ominous sign about its attitude toward negotiations on denuclearization.
The rebuilding work at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station began some time between Feb. 16 and March 2, according to satellite imagery, meaning it began either just before or immediately after the breakdown of a summit meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Feb. 28.
The site, also known as Tongchang-ri, is billed as a space launch center. North Korea had stated it was being dismantled and had promised to allow in international inspectors to verify that process, in a move widely cited as a sign of its good faith.
In Hanoi, Trump said Kim had promised not to resume nuclear and missile tests. In that context, any move by North Korea to launch a satellite — and pass it off as a peaceful space-related activity — would probably be seen as provocative.
“Given how much has been done at this site, it looks like more than a couple days’ worth of activity,” said Jenny Town, managing editor of 38 North, a website devoted to analysis of North Korea. “It’s hard to say if it happened immediately after the summit and they just rushed everything — I guess it’s possible — but it’s more likely that it started just before.”
Tongchang-ri is North Korea’s largest missile engine test site. Work to dismantle it began shortly after denuclearization negotiations with the United States began, but stalled from August of last year. Now it has gone into reverse.
“It’s unfortunate because this was one of the unilateral steps that the North Koreans were making at the beginning of the negotiation process as sort of a confidence-building measure, and so certainly this does have implications for how the North Koreans are thinking about the negotiation process,” Town said. “It’s highly unlikely that any of these kinds of unilateral measures will be offered again unless there is an actual agreement in place going forward.”
In another sign that positions may be hardening, White House national security adviser John Bolton warned that the United States may tighten sanctions if North Korea fails to denuclearize.
Bolton’s comments, to Fox Business Network, came before the news about the satellite launch station.
“If they’re not willing to do it [denuclearization], then I think President Trump has been very clear … they’re not going to get relief from the crushing economic sanctions that have been imposed on them and we’ll look at ramping those sanctions up in fact.”
Satellite launches have been very contentious in the past. In 2012, North Korea promised a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests in return for food aid. But the agreement, with the Obama administration, soon broke down after Pyongyang launched a satellite using ballistic missile technology that the United States deemed in breach of United Nations sanctions.
Jeffrey Lewis, a scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, said low-resolution imagery had detected some activity at the site between Feb. 18 and 22, although it was unclear what was happening until latest satellite images emerged.
‘It’s not great news,” he said. “They may have known the summit was not going to go well.”
Lewis said a defector report at the beginning of 2018 had indicated North Korea had been planning a space launch, while satellite imagery also indicated some activity at a factory used to make satellite rockets as well as intercontinental ballistic missiles.
“There was some evidence that they were on their way to doing a space launch,” he said. “So it’s not crazy to imagine that that might be one of the things they choose to resume if they don’t feel like they’re getting what they want in negotiations.”
Lewis said there was “nothing illegal” in doing a space launch, which would not use the same rocket as North Korea uses for ICBMs. But while that argument might satisfy China, Russia and perhaps even South Korea, it might not be seen that way in Washington, he said.
On the launch pad, a rail-mounted transfer building is being reassembled, according to analysis by 38 North, with two support cranes visible. Walls have been erected and appear to be even taller than the previous structure, and a new roof has been added.
At the engine test stand, images appear to show the engine support structure is being reassembled, with two cranes visible and construction materials spread across the stand’s apron, 38 North wrote.