Commercial satellite imagery of a facility near Pyongyang suggests that North Korea is preparing to launch a missile or space rocket in the near future.
The images are of a site known as Sanumdong — a facility where North Korea has assembled some of its intercontinental ballistic missiles and satellite-launching rockets. The images, taken Feb. 22 by DigitalGlobe and shared exclusively with NPR, show cars and trucks parked near the facility. Rail cars sit in a nearby rail yard, where two cranes are also erected.
"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," says Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Project at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Calif., who has studied the images.
News of the activity comes just days after other satellite imagery showed that North Korea has rapidly rebuilt a satellite launch facility on the country's west coast. Known as the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, the site has been used for several attempted space launches over the years, most recently in 2016.
The Sohae facility, sometimes called Dongchang-ri and Tongchang-ri, was partially dismantled after President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un held their first summit in June 2018. Imagery taken Wednesday suggests it may be operational again.
Lewis cautions it's impossible to know whether the North Koreans are preparing a military missile or a rocket that could carry a civilian satellite into space. It's also impossible to know when any launch might happen.
Additional images of the Sanumdong site taken Friday by another company, San Francisco-based Planet, show that vehicle activity has died down and that one of the cranes has disappeared. That could mean that workers have paused work on an ICBM or rocket, perhaps while awaiting further parts.
Or it could mean a missile or rocket has already left the facility.
"According to Planet imagery, I can definitely say the train has left the station," says Melissa Hanham, a North Korea expert with the One Earth Future Foundation. "But I can't unfortunately use X-ray vision to see what's on the train and tell whether it's a civilian space launch vehicle or a military ICBM."
One possible destination would be the Sohae Satellite Launching Station. Lewis says there's no easy way to tell whether a train has carried missile or rocket parts to Sohae because the rail yard there has a roof over it to prevent satellite snooping.
Lewis says he believes it's most likely that the North Koreans are preparing to launch a satellite into orbit. Prior to the 2018 thaw between Kim and Trump, North Korean officials had been saying they planned to launch two satellites, Lewis says. And he says Kim reportedly visited the Sanumdong site at the end of 2017 in order to prepare.
"We know that a space launch was a thing that the North Koreans were talking about doing," he says.
Lewis also says such a launch should not necessarily be regarded as an aggressive move. Rockets used to launch satellites are usually unsuitable for use as long-range missiles, he notes. "They would really make quite a poor ICBM," he says. "I think U.S. foreign policy has been far too obsessed with North Korean space launches."
But speaking at a briefing on Thursday, a senior State Department official said that the U.S. would regard any launch, including a space launch, as a violation of the goodwill between Trump and 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 told reporters.
"It seems like the two parties are moving farther apart rather than closer," Hanham says. "I hope that there isn't an overreaction by the United States to a space launch."
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
New photographs suggest North Korea is preparing to launch a missile or space rocket. This comes just more than a week after President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walked away from their nuclear summit with no agreement. NPR has been shown commercial satellite imagery of renewed activity at a facility where North Korea has assembled ICBMs and satellite rockets in the past, and this activity is at a different site from the one we've been discussing the last few days.
Science and security correspondent Geoff Brumfiel broke this story and joins us now in the studio. Hi, Geoff.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hi there.
SHAPIRO: You've seen these photos. When were they taken, and what did they show?
BRUMFIEL: These photos were taken on February 22 by a company called DigitalGlobe. And analysis from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies shows that basically what we're seeing is vehicle activity and activity at a nearby railyard that is consistent with the preparation of a missile or rocket - we're not quite sure which - at this facility. And the missile or a rocket may have indeed already left. It may still be under assembly. Again, we're not quite sure. But this is consistent with activity for preparing either an intercontinental ballistic missile or a space launch.
SHAPIRO: You've got those photos right in front of you. They're also posted online at npr.org. It was just days ago that another North Korean missile site appeared to have new activity. What's happening at that site, and how does it fit in with today's news?
BRUMFIEL: So that site's actually called the Sohae Satellite Launch Facility, and it basically is a site that North Korea has used in the past to launch satellites. Now, after Trump and Kim's first summit in June of last year, that site was partially disassembled as a goodwill gesture, and then sometime around the time of the Hanoi summit, everything was put together very, very quickly. And in fact, imagery from earlier this week showed the site is apparently completely reassembled now and may even be operational.
So these two things together suggest that we may be looking at a possible upcoming space launch, not a missile launch. North Korea has been talking about launching some satellites, and so that might be what they're intending to do.
SHAPIRO: Often it's impossible to know exactly what's happening in North Korea or what the intentions of the North Koreans might be, but can you try to put this activity into context for us? What does this mean?
BRUMFIEL: Sure. I mean, we don't have a lot of great on-the-ground intelligence in North Korea, and we really rely on satellite images, especially outside of the government, for making any sort of guesses, and the North Koreans know that. They use these moves to signal to the U.S. and to other countries that they're, you know, thinking this way or that. I think a satellite launch is kind of an interesting signal, if that's where we're headed. It looks in many ways like a missile launch, yet the North Koreans can claim it's peaceful. I think it would be seen as provocative. Yesterday, a senior State Department official said it would be seen as sort of backsliding in terms of the goodwill that Trump and Kim have built.
SHAPIRO: So maybe a reason to worry but not an explicit immediate threat - is that the assessment?
BRUMFIEL: Absolutely, yeah. This is not a threat. And we don't even know when this launch could happen. It could be days. It could be weeks or months. There's a big national holiday next month in North Korea, and that may be a time they choose to launch a satellite. And of course it may be there's no launch at all, that they're just doing some work at the facility. There's no way to tell right now. But nonetheless, it does seem to be a further indication that the two sides are moving further apart post-Hanoi summit.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR science and security correspondent Geoff Brumfiel, who broke this story of renewed activity at a North Korean missile assembly site. Thank you, Geoff.
BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.