Satellite images reveal activity at North Korean rocket facility

Washington: Satellite images suggest that North Korea could be preparing to launch a missile or space rocket in the near future, American analysts have said, signaling a potential blow to Washington-Pyongyang relations.

The commercial images, taken on February 22 by imaging company DigitalGlobe, revealed an uptick in activity at a facility in Sanumdong, a Pyongyang suburb, CNN reported on Saturday.

North Korea has previously assembled some of its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and satellite-launching rockets at Sanumdong.

The release of the images follows an assessment by respected North Korea monitoring website 38 North that the Sohae satellite launch facility, which had been partially disassembled as part of disarmament steps, is now back to normal operational status after a flurry of restoration work in recent weeks.

“We’re seeing a lot of vehicle activity at the Sanumdong facility and also at the rail transfer point where it would be loaded and taken to Sohae,” Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Project at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, who has studied the new images, told CNN on Friday.

“I think the evidence points to a satellite launch, and not just the evidence at Sanumdong, but also the evidence from Sohae.”

Satellite launches use similar technology as ballistic missiles, and experts have long maintained that North Korea’s attempts to shoot satellites into space could help them develop viable long-range ballistic missiles.

Lewis warned that it was impossible to know whether the North Koreans were preparing a military missile or a space rocket. It is also possible that the activity was a deliberate attempt to draw the attention of US spy satellites.

The US State Department has declined to comment on the development.

“Because that (Sanumdong) facility produces both ICBMs and space rockets, we don’t know what’s on the train,” Melissa Hanham, a North Korea expert with the One Earth Future Foundation, told CNN.

Hanham believes a satellite launch is the more likely scenario because there has never been an ICBM launch from Sohae.

North Korea’s missile programme made strides in 2017, with Pyongyang saying it successfully test-fired three ICBMs. The Hwasong-15, which was launched last November, can likely hit much of the US.

Speaking on Wednesday before the release of the latest images, President Donald Trump said it was “too early to see” whether North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had restarted the country’s missile testing programme but added that he would be “very disappointed” if that turned out to be the case.

Kim and Trump held their second summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, on February 27-28 but it ended abruptly without any agreement.