North Korea is rebuilding a key rocket-testing site in what some experts believe is a signal from Kim Jong Un to Donald Trump that Pyongyang’s nuclear missiles remain a threat to the U.S.
New satellite images published by Washington-based think tank 38 North reveal that Kim has restarted construction at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station — also known as Tongchang-ri — which has been used in the past to test engines for liquid-fueled rockets and launch satellites. North Korea had begun dismantling the site last year following the first summit meeting between Trump and Kim, in June.
A report published this week by the Center for Strategic International Studies, citing separate satellite imagery, said: “North Korea is pursuing a rapid rebuilding of the long-range rocket site at Sohae.”
The revelations about the Sohae facility come just five days after the aborted summit in Vietnam between Kim and President Trump, during which the president proclaimed, “I trust him. And I take him at his word,” in reference to Kim’s promise not to conduct any more tests or launches of the country’s nuclear rockets.
“If what these images revealed are true, then Kim could be using them to send a signal to the U.S. that if Washington is unwilling to remove sanctions, North Korea will expand its nuclear and missile capabilities,” Baohui Zhang, director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, told VICE News. “Threats and bluffing have always been part of the North Korean playbook.”
During a spate of testing in 2017, North Korea showcased intercontinental ballistic missiles that experts believe are capable of striking almost anywhere in the U.S. American intelligence officials agree that Pyongyang has developed this capability, as well as the ability to arm those missile with miniaturized nuclear warheads.
According to the satellite imagery published by 38 North, the renewed work on the test site began sometime after Feb. 16 and before Mar. 2 — a period which included Trump’s summit in Hanoi with Kim.
While some reports suggested that the rebuilding began after the end of the aborted summit, images from Planet Labs show that the building had commenced earlier than that.
Operating since 2012, Sohae is North Korea’s only operational space launch facility and has been used to successfully launch two satellites. While it has been used to test liquid-fuelled rocket engine technology used in North Korea’s long-range missiles, it has never been used to launch a long-range missile.
“White House press secretary Sarah Sanders responded Wednesday morning to reporters questions about the rebuilding at Sohae by saying Trump still wants to talk. “We are continuing to have conversations. As the president has said, we’ll see what happens,” Sanders said.
The Trump administration said in recent days it is waiting to see if North Korea is committed to denuclearization and if that commitment was not shown, it would take action.
“If they’re not willing to do it, then I think President Trump has been very clear, they’re not going to get relief from the crushing economic sanctions that have been imposed on them and we’ll look at ramping those sanctions up in fact,” National Security Adviser John Bolton told Fox Business Network on Tuesday.
The dismantling of the Sohae facility was never formally codified in a deal with Washington and was seen as part of the unilateral confidence-building measures Pyongyang offered at the beginning of the talks with the U.S.
A U.S. government source, speaking to Reuters, said that the revelations were not particularly alarming, and was not on the same level as resuming missile launches, which have been suspended since 2017.
But experts said Kim’s decision to restart work at Sohae was a deliberate move designed to grab Washington’s attention.
“[This is] clearly a warning to the Trump administration since the North Koreans know this facility is watched closely by satellites,” Joel Wit, director of 38 North and a former State Department official, told VICE News.
Yet Wit, who helped negotiate the 1994 U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework, warned that “there is no evidence at all to suggest they are preparing for any kind of test yet.”
And not everyone agrees that this is Kim sending a message to Trump.
“I think it is more likely to be DPRK ‘business as usual’ rather than an attempt to send a message,” Thomas Countryman, a career diplomat who served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation during the Obama administration, told VICE News. ”I don’t expect it to have a serious effect on negotiations — whenever they truly resume — unless DPRK goes back to ballistic missile launches.”
Cover: An engine support structure of the engine test stand in North Korea that's being reassembled. Date: March 2, 2019. DigitalGlobe/38 North via Getty Images.