New satellite images show North Korea is continuing to make enhancements to a missile launch facility that could provide a capability to fire substantially larger rockets, the Associated Press reported on Thursday.
The commercial surveillance images were taken as recently as last month and examined by 38 North, a website managed by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
The analysis indicates the North is pressing ahead with building a launch platform and other structures at the Musudan-ri site. Movement is also noted around a separate launchpad most recently employed in a 2009 rocket launch.
The analysis also found several similarities to the work being done at Musudan-ri and layout features of Iran's launch site at Senman, suggesting Pyongyang and Tehran are deepening their collaboration.
38 North projects that work on Musudan-ri's new larger missile firing platform could be wrapped up no later than 2016.
"This analysis is just another piece of the puzzle indicating North Korea's intention to field increasingly capable long-range missiles able to cary nuclear warheads," according to 38 North editor Joel Wit.
North Korea in December successfully launched a long-range rocket from another site and on Tuesday conducted its third nuclear test since 2006.
The underground nuclear blast is viewed as being focused on acquiring the capability to build compact nuclear warheads that could be fixed to long-range ballistic missiles. "We no longer hide but publicly declare: If the imperialists have nuclear weapons, we must have them, and if they have intercontinental ballistic missiles, we must have them too. Anger seeks weapons,” the New York Times on Thursday quoted the Stalinist regime's official Rodong Sinmun newspaper as stating.
In response to the North's latest action, South Korea on Thursday boasted its new cruise missiles have the pinpoint precision capability to hit the offices of senior North Korean leaders, Reuters reported.
"The cruise missile being unveiled today is a precision-guided weapon that can identify and strike the window of the office of North Korea's leadership," South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said to journalists. The recently deployed cruise missiles have the ability to strike any area in the North.
The saber rattling from Seoul is a response to Pyongyang's Tuesday detonation of a nuclear device. The aspiring nuclear power has said it is preparing for "stronger measures" against the United States and partner nations.
The Japanese government, meanwhile, said its decades-long pacifist posture would not keep it from carrying out a first strike if it determines an attack is looming. "When an intention to attack Japan is evident, the threat is imminent, and there are no other options, Japan is allowed under the law to carry out strikes against enemy targets," Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said in an interview.
While Tokyo does not at present have plans to ready first-strike military capacities, Onodera said, "we need to carefully observe the changing security environment in the region."
Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo want to see the U.N. Security Council adopt a strong sanctions resolution against the North.
Foreign scientists are still collecting data from Tuesday's nuclear test. It is not yet clear whether the detonation involved weaponized uranium or plutonium.
The Chinese Environment Ministry said it has yet to detect unusual radiation levels emanating from the North's Punggye-ri test site, which is about 62 miles from the Chinese border. Seoul also said it has yet to see any radiation.
Securing China's support of any new U.N. sanctions is necessary as Beijing holds veto-power over council resolutions and has frequently wielded it to protect its client state from international punishments. South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan said his government has been reaching out to persuade China to accept new sanctions against the North, according to the Yonhap News Agency.