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Asia-Pacific

What's behind North Korea's rebuilding of the Sohae rocket site?

media Commercial satellite image shows North Korea's Sohae Satellite Launching Station, North Korea on March 2, 2019 CSIS/Beyond Parallel/DigitalGlobe 2019 via REUTERS

Despite promises to close its Sohae launching facility, North Korea appears to be rapidly restoring the part of the site used to test long-range missile engines. Newly published satellite images show fresh activity at the site, which had been dormant since August and this has North Korea watchers speculating as to Pyongyang’s motives.

Is this a sign the regime is changing tack following the breakdown of talks in Hanoi between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump? Or should the move be seen as harmless playacting on the part of the North Koreans who, after all, designed the facility to launch satellites, not missiles?

It’s hard to read North Korean intentions most of the time, says Robert Winstanley-Chesters, a member of Cambridge University's Beyond the Korean War project, adding that this may well be a calculated message aimed at Washington.

“North Korea might feel that this is one step down from rebuilding a site that functions as a missile launch pad. So by rebuilding a site that is a satellite launch pad, the regime might be trying to be less provocative ... but while still being provocative all the same,” he says.

Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump in Hanoi, Vietnam, on 1 March, 2019. CNA via REUTERS

“This is something they’ve repeatedly done in the past … but what’s interesting here is the fact the launch pad’s environmental shields, which protect its umbilical power, have apparently deliberately been removed to make it look even more obvious.”

'No reason to panic'

According to 38 North, a Washington-based team that analyses events in and around North Korea, structures on the Sohae launch pad were rebuilt sometime between February 16 and March 2. This means work was underway as Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a second summit in Hanoi last week.

“I wouldn’t be panicking about this, honestly,” says Tom Plant, director of proliferation and nuclear policy at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, a thinktank on international defence and security. “Some of the imagery that’s being talked about today is from early February and should not be read as an immediate reaction to Hanoi.”

“All of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles that really worry us are rogue mobile and could be launched from anywhere”

The February 27 Vietnam talks ended without deals on denuclearisation or an easing of sanctions. In fact, Washington has since threatened to “ramp up” its sanctions if North Korea fails to show willingness to give up its nuclear programme.

While the Sohae site is not insignificant, says Plant, it doesn’t contribute meaningfully to North Korea’s ballistic missile program. Moreover, for Plant the move is a signal of displeasure and is consistent with a North Korean side trying to gain leverage.

“All of the missiles that we really care about from the DPRK (North Korea) are mobile anyway and they’re being launched from a variety of different places – but not at the (Sohae) site that is currently being reconstructed. The Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles that worry us are all rogue mobile and could be launched from anywhere.”

Nonetheless, the breakdown of the Hanoi summit, coupled with renewed activity at Sohae – and the possibility of fresh sanctions – does not bode well for future dialogue.

North Korea standing its ground

Winstanley-Chesters says Pyongyang doesn’t scare easily, and won’t be deterred by sanctions threats. Not only is the regime fiercely protective of its right to launch satellites, it also has to keep up appearances for the North Korean public.

“Pyongyang feels that it has always had the legitimate right to conduct research in space according to various treaties about space exploration, so it doesn’t feel that it is restricted by sanctions from conducting space exploration or satellite launches,” he says.

So what does North Korea have to gain from deliberately baiting the US at the risk of inviting even heavier sanctions – especially at a time when the UN is warning that natural disasters have led the country's food production to fall to its lowest level in a decade?

“You have to remember that North Korea is serving a number of different audiences. This could be a way of signalling to its internal population that Pyongyang still has capacity and is prepared to take action against the US when these summits don’t work and when they fail to achieve the ends that North Korea is aiming for.”

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