Satellite images of a North Korean rocket assembly facility suggest possible launch preparations, Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Project at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, told CNN on Friday.
The images, taken February 22 by imaging company DigitalGlobe, reveal an uptick in activity at a facility in Sanumdong, a suburb of the capital Pyongyang.
North Korea has previously assembled some of its intercontinental ballistic missiles and satellite-launching rockets at Sanumdong.
Two experts CNN interviewed said they believed the activity suggested a satellite launch.
This follows an assessment by US think tank 38 North, a respected North Korea monitoring website, that North Korea’s Sohae Satellite Launch Facility, which had been partially disassembled as part of a pledge by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, is now back to normal operational status after a flurry of restoration work in recent weeks — work that appears to have picked up after Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un’s failed summit in Hanoi.
“We’re seeing a lot of vehicle activity at the Sanumdong facility and also at the rail transfer point where it would be loaded and taken to Sohae,” said Lewis, who has studied the images. “I think the evidence points to a satellite launch, and not just the evidence at Sanumdong, but also the evidence from Sohae.”
Lewis cautioned that it is impossible to know whether the North Koreans are preparing a military missile or a space rocket. It’s also possible that the activity was a deliberate attempt to draw the attention of US spy satellites.
The US State Department has declined to comment.
“Because that facility produces both ICBMs and space rockets, we don’t know what’s on the train,” said Melissa Hanham, a North Korea expert with the One Earth Future Foundation. “We also don’t know how far the train has gotten.”
Hanham believes a satellite launch is the more likely scenario because there has never been an ICBM launch from Sohae. She also says activity at the launch site should indicate about a week in advance whether a launch is imminent.
“There’s never been a surprise launch from Sohae,” Hanham says.
Satellite launches use similar technology as ballistic missiles, and experts have long cautioned that North Korea’s attempts to shoot satellites into space could help them develop viable long-range ballistic missiles.
North Korea’s missile program made strides in 2017, with Pyongyang saying it successfully test-fired three intercontinental ballistic missiles. Experts say the Hwasong-15, which was launched in late November, can likely hit much of the United States.