North Korea Rebuilding Missile Testing Site

In the wake of the failure of the Hanoi Summit to reach any agreement at all, North Korea appears to be returning to old form.

Within days after the conclusion of the Hanoi Summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un, there are signs that the North Koreans have begun rebuilding a ballistic missile testing facility that was supposedly destroyed last year:

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea has started rebuilding the facilities it uses to launch satellites into orbit and test engines and other technologies for its intercontinental ballistic missile program, according to American military analysts and South Korean intelligence officials.

The revelation comes days after the breakdown of the second summit meeting between the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and President Trump last week in Hanoi, Vietnam. It could be a first sign that North Korea is preparing to end its moratorium on missile tests, which Mr. Trump has claimed as a major diplomatic achievement.

North Korea began dismantling the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in Tongchang-ri near its northwestern border with China last summer, after Mr. Kim held his first meeting with Mr. Trump in June in Singapore. It partially took down an engine test site, a rocket launchpad and a rail-mounted building used by engineers to assemble launch vehicles and move them to the launchpad.

The North did not completely dismantle the facilities, and when Mr. Kim met with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea in September, he offered to destroy them in the presence of American experts.

But that offer is now in doubt, after Mr. Kim’s meeting with Mr. Trump in Hanoi ended without an agreement on how to end the North’s nuclear weapons and missile programs.

In Hanoi, Mr. Kim asked for the removal of punishing United Nations sanctions in return for the dismantling of its Yongbyon nuclear complex north of Pyongyang, the North’s capital, as well as the Tongchang-ri facilities. Mr. Trump rejected the demand, calling the lifting of sanctions too high a price to pay for partial moves toward denuclearization.

Although the Yongbyon complex has been used to produce nuclear bomb fuel, North Korea is believed to have other fuel-making facilities elsewhere, as well as fissile materials, nuclear warheads and missiles that it keeps in secret locations.

Analysts have wondered what Mr. Kim’s next move might be after the breakdown of the Hanoi talks. In a New Year’s Day speech, he warned that North Korea would find a “new way” if the United States persisted with sanctions.

The news of rebuilding at Tongchang-ri first emerged hours after Mr. Kim returned home on Tuesday from Hanoi.

Speaking to lawmakers behind closed doors at South Korea’s National Assembly on Tuesday, officials from its National Intelligence Service indicated that North Korea had been rebuilding the Tongchang-ri facilities even before the Hanoi summit meeting, South Korean news media reported on Wednesday.

North Korea may have wanted to rebuild them in order to make their dismantling more dramatic if the Hanoi summit produced a deal with the Americans, the intelligence officials were quoted as saying. Or it may have wanted the option to resume rocket tests if the Hanoi talks broke down, they said.

The intelligence service declined to confirm the South Korean reports on Wednesday.

North Korea has not conducted any nuclear or missile tests since November 2017. Mr. Trump has cited that as a key achievement of his policy of imposing tough sanctions, which he said forced North Korea to return to the negotiating table.

Speaking at a news conference in Hanoi last week, Mr. Trump said Mr. Kim had promised not to resume nuclear or missile tests. Later, the United States canceled two large-scale joint military exercises with South Korea to help support Mr. Trump’s diplomacy with Mr. Kim.

The Tongchang-ri facilities have been vital to North Korea’s space and missile programs. The country has used the facilities there to launch satellite-carrying rockets. The United States has called the satellite program a front for developing intercontinental ballistic missiles.


“Based on commercial satellite imagery, efforts to rebuild these structures started sometime between February 16 and March 2, 2019,” 38 North, a website specializing in North Korea analysis, said in a report about the Tongchang-ri facilities on Tuesday.

“On the launchpad, the rail-mounted transfer building is being reassembled,” it said. “At the engine test stand, it appears that the engine support structure is being reassembled.”

Beyond Parallel, a website run by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, published a report with similar assessments on Tuesday.

“Commercial satellite imagery acquired on March 2, 2019, shows that North Korea is pursuing a rapid rebuilding of the long-range rocket site,” it said. The renewed activity “may indicate North Korean plans to demonstrate resolve” after the Hanoi summit, it said.

Officially, North Korea says it no longer needs to carry out nuclear or missile tests because it has finished developing its nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles and begun mass-producing them. But some Western officials and analysts still doubt that the country has mastered the technologies needed to reliably strike a target across an ocean with a missile.

The news of rebuilding at the missile facility is also being reported by The Washington PostThe Wall Street Journal, and by NBC News, which was apparently the first to break the story:

WASHINGTON — North Korea is pursuing the “rapid rebuilding” of the long-range rocket site at Sohae Launch Facility, according to new commercial imagery and an analysis from the researchers at Beyond Parallel.

Sohae Satellite Launching Station, North Korea’s only operational space launch facility, has been used in the past for satellite launches. These launches use similar technology to what is used for intercontinental ballistic missiles.

“This renewed activity, taken just two days after the inconclusive Hanoi Summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, may indicate North Korean plans to demonstrate resolve in the face of U.S. rejection of North Korea’s demands at the summit to lift five U.N. Security Council sanctions enacted in 2016-2017,” the analysts said. As NBC News reported, Beyond Parallel, a project sponsored by the defense think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, recently identified 20 undisclosed missile sites in North Korea.

Beyond Parallel reports the activity at Sohae, photographed March 2, is “evident at the vertical engine test stand and the launch pad’s rail-mounted rocket transfer structure.”

“The activity they are undertaking now is consistent with preparations for a test, though the imagery thus far does not show a missile being moved to the launch pad,” Victor Cha, one of the authors of the report, said.

“The activity on the ground,” Cha said, “shows us that they do have a (nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile) capability that is not just developmental, but in the prototype phase. They’ve already tested a few of these and it looks like they’re preparing the launch pad for another act.”

Asked for comment, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said, “We don’t comment on intelligence.

After the first summit between the two leaders in Singapore in June 2018, North Korea began to dismantle some facilities at Sohae. “The facility has been dormant since August 2018, indicating the current activity is deliberate and purposeful,” the analysts said.

Other researchers have said that there has been continued low-level activity at the site in the interim, including an analysis from 38 North, which posted satellite photos from Oct. 31, 2018, showing new equipment being installed and “the continued presence and movement of vehicles” at several of the headquarters buildings.

The same day the satellite photos at Sohae were taken, Trump touted his talks with Kim in Hanoi as “very productive,” saying the two leaders have “made great historic progress.”

“But I had to walk,” he said Saturday in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “Because every once in a while, you have to walk, because the deal wasn’t a deal that was acceptable to me.”

The president, however, said “the one thing we have, though, is we have no testing, no missiles going up, no rockets going up. No nuclear testing.”

He said that before he started talking to Kim: “Mountains were being — these are big mountains. They were being shoved over three, four inches. People thought it was massive earthquakes, then they found out, no, that was nuclear weapons — nuclear testing. So much.”

This photograph shows the extent of what’s going on with the missile testing site:

This news that the North Koreans are apparently returning to their old and familiar ways is, of course, entirely consistent with the manner in which the situation on the Korean Peninsula has unfolded since the first meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un in Singapore last June. After that meeting ended, claimed that significant progress had been made at the relatively brief meeting. Soon after the meeting ended, though, it became apparent that the summit had been little more than photo opportunity that did more to boost Kim’s standing in the world than it did to bring us any closer to a resolution of the issues between the United States and the DPRK. Despite that, President Trump claimed that North Korea was no longer a nuclear threat to the United States, even though the reality of what had actually occurred was far less substantial.

The reality of the situation on the ground became apparent soon after the summit as North Korea began taking steps that made it clear that the summit had not resulted in any agreement to “denuclearize” the DPRK or on any of the other issues. It was just weeks after the Singapore summit, for example, that we learned that North Korea was increasing production of the fuel needed to make additional nuclear weapons and that it was concealing the existence of ongoing nuclear weapons research at secret facilities well hidden from both surveillance and, most likely, the ability of the United States to take the sites out in a military strike. Additionally, it became apparent in the days after the summit that the much-publicized destruction of the DPRK’s primary nuclear weapons test site, a much-hyped pre-summit event that was witnessed by American and other international journalists, was much less than met the eye and that the site could easily be rebuilt if needed in the future. Weeks later, we learned that the DPRK had also begun work on the construction of new ballistic missiles at yet another secret site. Additionally, analysts who have seen satellite images say that the DPRK has made a second large nuclear reactor operational. This type of reactor is capable of making plutonium which is, of course, one of the main fuels used in the production of nuclear weapons. This new reactor can reportedly make four times as much plutonium as North Korea’s current reactor, which has been the source for the plutonium needed for its nuclear arsenal to date. Taking all of this into account, it should be clear both that there was no agreement made at the Singapore summit regarding either the DPRK’s nuclear program or its ballistic missile program, and that they fully intend on moving forward with both regardless of what is said in public about diplomatic progress related to the two summit meetings and the lower-level meetings that have taken place. Taking all of this into account, it’s hard not to reach the conclusion that, much like previous Administrations, Donald Trump got played by the Kim regime and ended up getting nothing in return.

Ever since the North Koreans started pursuing a nuclear program in the 1990s, four separate American Presidents have tried to execute some variation on the “carrot and stick” approach with the DPRK in an effort to get them to act the way we wanted to. In the past, the carrot has taken the form of food and other forms of aid during times of famine or economic crisis. In the Trump Era, the “carrot” appears to be some promise that the DPRK could become an economic paradise if only it complied with American demands regarding its nuclear program and other issues. In that regard, Trump has spoken publicly, and presumably in private with Kim, about beach resorts in the DPRK and other “great” things he believes could happen, even though there’s little evidence that this is kind of future that Kim sees for his country. Indeed, like his father and grandfather, Kim Jong Un seems to clearly recognize that opening North Korea to the world would, in the end, be an even greater threat to his hold on power than giving up the nation’s nuclear weapons since it would expose the North Korean people to the reality of what the rest of the world is like compared to the misery that they have lived under since the end of the Korean War. As with the Soviet bloc in the late 80s and early 90s, this kind of exposure is likely to lead the North Korean people to realize the extent to which they’ve been lied to for generations. If there is going to be modernization in North Korea, it is going to be tightly controlled by the Kim regime in much the same way that it has been in China, not in the manner it was under Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika, which inevitably led to a collapse in public faith in the regime and the end of Soviet control.

The “stick,” on the other hand has been increased sanctions and diplomatic pressure, but as we’ve seen that has only had limited success in causing Pyongyang to change its ways. To a large degree, of course, this has been because, notwithstanding their public pronouncements, China and Russia, which both share a border with the DPRK, have assisted the regime in various ways to defy these sanctions while other nations have been more than willing to deal with the DPRK despite the risk that they took will face the ire of the United States. Additionally, no American President has been willing to take sanctions enforcement to its logical conclusion, which would inevitably include a blockade of North Korean ports that would make it much harder for the nation to trade with those nations willing to do so. In any case, while there’s always the option of increasing economic pressure on the DPRK it’s unlikely the United States would ever go that far.

As I said several days ago, the Hanoi Summit failed because the Trump Administration has unrealistic goals regarding what can actually be accomplished vis a vis North Korea. It’s also apparent that the President failed to even try to negotiate a deal with the North Koreans that could have accomplished anything. The best example of this, of course, is the fact that he ordered the cancelation of the next round of scheduled military exercises with South Korea without getting anything in return. The message this sends to the DPRK is obvious. They can get what they want from the United States, at least to some degree, without having to give up anything in return. The fact that they are now openly acting as if the two summits never happened should not be surprising.

FILED UNDER: National Security, Science & Technology, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Teve says:

    I just looked at Breitbart and Gateway Pundit and there is absolutely no mention of North Korea, so I’m going to assume this is Fake News.

    I did however learn that Christine Blasey Ford and AOC should be going to jail soon, House Democrats are actually Stalinist, and New York state is actually a communist economy. That’s the sort of high-IQ information the LameStream media won’t tell you.

  2. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Where are all the sycophants who claimed that Dennison was doing what no one else could do?
    Individual-1 canceled military exercises, gave Kim the International platform and attention he craved, and got zero in return. He’s the world’s worst negotiator…and for a wannabe dictator, he sucks at being a dictator.

  3. CSK says:

    Yes, and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama will soon be consigned to Gitmo.

  4. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    In the meantime the Trade Deficit, which Dennison promised to reduce, is exploding along with the Nat’l Debt.
    The guy is incompetent…let’s just hope nothing happens that requires a functioning human as president.

  5. Teve says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: I think I saw at Kevin drum’s site a little while ago that the trade deficit with China is up 21% since Trump took over.

  6. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Worst trade deficit since the Bush Contraction in ’08.

  7. Kathy says:


    [..]and New York state is actually a communist economy.

    Da, tovarisch. Nothing more Communistic than Wall Street, yes?

  8. gVOR08 says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: Illegal border crossings are up too. So much winning.

  9. Kathy says:

    I wonder, can Kim call Trump ans say he didn’t do it, or does it have to wait for the next summit?

  10. Gustopher says:

    They are probably just tidying it up to make it some kind of Trump branded resort. Transform their nuclear tech into an economic paradise.

  11. Mister Bluster says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:..Where are all the sycophants who claimed that Dennison was doing what no one else could do?

    They are trying to explain why Trump is in delicate negotiations with his loverboy Kim Jong Un today even though in June of 2018 Trump declared “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”

    “There is a delicate negotiation going on here and brinkmanship is the coin of that realm. It’s not pretty, but it’s called reality.”
    A quote from one of Trump’s Toadies four days ago on these threads.

    Q) Why, Mister Toady, does Trump need to engage in “delicate negotiations” if, as Trump proclaimed, last July, that “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”???

  12. Teve says:

    video of trump calling Tim Cook “Tim Apple”.

    “Daddy, what’s Sundowning?”

  13. Gustopher says:

    @Teve: I’m not sure that means anything. This is something I am willing to look the other way on, and accept because he’s not a natural politician (politicians are selected, in part, by their ability to remember names and make people feel important).

    I am terrible with names. One of my favorite statements is “I’m sure all of you people have names,” which I recite every time I am completely flustered by names.

    Im also borderline face blind. I swear, all white folks look alike… particularly all Hollywood White Folks… I praise diverse casting just because it makes it easier to tell everyone apart. There’s just no excuse to have two dark haired, dark eyed, conventionally attractive people of the same gender, hair length and skin tone on any show unless they are playing twins, and even then, why not give one a distinctive eye patch?

    I’d even give him a pass on Button and Nipple, if he knew what Bhutan and Nepal were.

    Baltics and Balkans is harder to give him a pass on because of his wife. Also, he can’t remember which one he is insulting a Prime Minister of, which goes back to a lack of understanding of the concepts and not just the names. (If Kaplan’s book “Balkan Ghosts” were named “Ghosts From A Region Starting With B” or “Black Something And Grey Falcon 2: The Revenge” or “You Go To Yugoslavia” or something, I would never be able to remember)

    I have similar problems with Sunni and Shia — I will never learn which is which. Sauron and Saurumon have the same problem. Farfel, Falafel and Farfale too.

  14. Teve says:

    @Gustopher: I ignore simple flubs like Obama saying 57 states and then later correcting it. People get tired, I get it. But this is the third name slip I can remember. Tim Apple, he called the CEO of Lockheed ‘Marilyn Lockheed’, and he called Kevin McCarthy ‘Steve’.

    I heard a story one time that Ivana Trump started calling everyone Darling so she could skip remembering anyone’s name. Maybe Trump should start calling everybody Champ or something. 😛

  15. Tev says:

    @Gustopher: farfalle is easy–it’s italian for ‘butterfly’.

    Bow-Ties my ASS.

  16. Gustopher says:

    @Teve: A friend’s sister was dating three different guys, all named Young (it’s the Korean equivalent of whatever our most common name is… John? Chris?). Completely removed the problem of calling one boyfriend by the others name. I think she dumped a Young, and found a new replacement Young while this was going on.

    She eventually settled down with one of them, or they all started dressing alike or something.

  17. just nutha says:

    @Gustopher: You remember Farfel? You must be older than I thought you were. ETA: or are you talking about farfel, the pasta? (which I’d never heard of before just looking Farfel (the dog) up again)

  18. Mister Bluster says: