North Korea rebuilds structures at rocket site

The move comes shortly after a breakdown in denuclearisation talks with the US

Photo: EPA/DigitalGlobe Commercial satellite image showing the Sohae (Tongchang-ri) Satellite Launching Station in North Korea.

Just a few days after the US-North Korea summit ended in a stalemate, satellite images showed last week that a “rapid rebuilding” is taking place at a partially disassembled missile test facility in North Korea. News initially came from two monitoring groups, the Centre for Strategic Studies and 38 North, which published separately commercial satellite imagery.

According to them, photos clearly show that activity at the Tongchang-ri satellite launch facility, which has been dormant since August as part of disarmament steps, was restored with supporting cranes and newly erected walls in sight. The groups also reported that work has started between 16 February and 2 March, meaning it could have happened shortly before, during, or immediately after Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump abruptly ended their second summit in Hanoi with no further agreement on denuclearisation.

On Wednesday, the assessment was confirmed by South Korea's National Intelligence Service, with NIS director Suh Hoon saying the structures restored at the launch site include roofs on the fuel and oxidiser buildings as well as new building doors.

North Korea has carried out satellite launches at the site in recent years, claiming they are part of its peaceful space development programme. Many outside experts, however claim ballistic missiles and rockets used in satellite launches share similar bodies, engines and other technology and have repeatedly accused Pyongyang for disguising tests of banned missile technology. So dismantling parts of its long-range rocket launch facility was among several steps the North took last year when it entered nuclear talks with the United States. Also last year, North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un promised South Korean President Moon Jae-in to “permanently shut down” the Tongchang-ri engine test ground and rocket launch pad, with the participation of foreign experts.

Yet, it seems that Kim has changed his mind after the latest Trump-Kim summit fell apart because of differences over how much sanction relief North Korea could win in return for its denuclearisation efforts, more precisely for closing its aging main nuclear complex.

So what does the alleged reassembling of facilities mean for the nuclear diplomacy now? According to some experts, the move could be preparation to restart long-range rocket launches if nuclear diplomacy completely collapses. It could nevertheless be an attempt to add structures that could be dramatically blown up in a show of denuclearisation commitment when US inspectors visit, if negotiations with Washington go well in the future.

Whatever this might be a sign of, however, US President Donald Trump said on Wednesday that he would be very disappointed in Kim Jong-un in case reports of renewed activity near the missile test site in North Korea are accurate.

“I would be very disappointed if that were happening,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “It is a very early report - we are the ones who put it out - but I would be very, very disappointed in Chairman Kim.”

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