Satellite pictures taken in August reveal that North Korea has suspended building work on a firing platform that might be intended for launching continent-spanning rockets, issue specialist Nick Hansen concluded in a Monday post for the website 38 North.
The Stalinist government could have halted work at the Tonghae missile launch complex near Musudan-ri in the country's northeast as a result of flooding that might push back finishing work on the launchpad by as much as two years, the Associated Press reported.
At the same time, the North is seen to be modernizing an older missile launch platform at Musudan-ri, Hansen concluded following an examination of pictures snapped on Aug. 29 by Digital Globe.
The overhauling of the older launch platform suggests Pyongyang intends to use the system for new rocket launches, concluded 38 North, which is managed by the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Pictures also show work has begun on a potential command-and-control facility. It is the only area at Tonghae "where work is proceeding at a rapid pace," according to Hansen. Separate work on a facility that could be used to assemble large rockets is seen to be progressing but at a slower pace.
The United States suspects North Korea is developing a road-mobile ICBM and of using its declared rocket program as a mask for missile development and testing. The North has yet to conduct a successful long-range missile test despite several attempts, most recently in April. Pyongyang has carried out two atomic tests to date but it has yet to demonstrate the ability to build nuclear weapons small enough to be mounted on a missile.
"Despite the temporary halt in construction at the new Tonghae launchpad and the failed test last April, the North Koreans appear determined to eventually build bigger and better rockets," ex-State Department official and 38 North editor Joel Wit said in an interview.
The unsuccessful April attempt to send an Unha 3 rocket into space took place at North Korea's newer missile complex at Dongchang-ri in the northwest. The rocket broke apart within minutes of takeoff.
The August images of Musudan-ri reveal that work on oxidizer and fuel facilities accompanying the new launchpad has been suspended. Those facilities would play key roles in any new rocket or missile launches, according to 38 North. There are also no signs of construction crews or large building machinery near the partially constructed platform.
"Whatever the reason, the slowdown, barring concerted North Korean efforts to make up for lost time, could result in a 1-2 year slip in the planned completion date of the new complex, which was probably in the middle of this decade," according to the analysis.
Despite the work shutdown, North Korea retains the ability to fire missiles from its Dongchang-ri complex, the website said.