Analysts have been pouring over satellite imagery of North Korea trying to decide whether or not it’s preparing to another rocket test at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station close to the northern border with China.
The remote base is locating among the hills of that region and has been the site of all North Korea’s satellite launches since 2012.
According to the experts at the US-based Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), the secretive regime isn’t planning a new satellite launch – but it could be readying another test of rocket capabilities.
Tyre tracks and movements across the site have been noted in the commercial satellite pictures.
“Between November 23 and December 25, the rail-mounted environment shelter was moved from its position flush against the vertical engine test stand to the center of the concrete apron,” reports 38 North , the division of Johns Hopkins SAIS concerned with North Korea.
“Tyre tracks are visible on the concrete apron and in front of the vehicle garage on both dates. While there appears to be no activity at the stand’s fuel/oxidizer bunkers, this absence of activity has not been a reliable indicator for rocket engine test preparations in the past,” wrote Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., Frank Pabian and Jack Liu.
Although the team point out that normal maintenance and repair could be a reason for the increased activity, they suggest it’s just as likely Kim Jong Un is preparing for another test launch.
North Korea is believed to be prepping its Kwangmyongsong-5 Earth-observation satellite.
“Both color and near-infrared imagery, however, show no indications that an engine test has taken place since November 23, suggesting that if the current activity is test related, it is likely preparations for a future test,” wrote the experts from 38 North.
North Korea’s nuclear programme
North Korea claims to have developed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of targeting any place in the United States.
However, the hard part is perfecting a nuclear device small and light enough to fit on the missile without affecting its range, as well as making it capable of surviving re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
North Korea’s two tests of an ICBM last month likely carried a payload lighter than any nuclear warhead it is currently able to produce, weapons experts said.
The isolated state therefore needs to carry out at least another nuclear test – its sixth – before it can develop an fully operational nuclear-tipped ICBM.
“In order to make a nuclear weapon deployable it has to be small and light, but North Korea doesn’t seem to have this technology,” said Choi Jin-wook, a professor of international relations at Japan’s Ritsumeikan University.
Besides developing a miniaturised nuclear warhead, some experts say it appears Kim’s rocket scientists have yet to master the technology to protect a warhead from the extreme heat and pressure of re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere after an intercontinental flight.