By Nicholas Hamisevicz
New satellite photos of a North Korean missile site have just been released. The analyses of the photos from the initial reports suggest that North Korea has stopped construction on its Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground. Articles are beginning to examine the photos and speculate on what might be going on in North Korea. The reports list possible scenarios on the potential meaning of the apparent suspension of construction around the North Korean missile site; however, the idea that “the country does appear to be scaling back its missile program, perhaps even abandoning new development altogether” should be considered highly premature at this point.
To their credit, the articles did mention the best reason against the idea that North Korea is reducing its missile program: the Sohae rocket launching site on the northwest coast of the DPRK. The Sohae facility was the site of North Korea missile tests in April and December 2012. Moreover, the analysis of the satellite photos over Tonghae suggests work stopped at the site around October 2012. A possible explanation could be that North Korea was preparing for the December 2012 launch and that attention toward the Tonghae facility was not needed. In addition, analysis of some satellite photos of the Sohae facility earlier this year suggest rocket engine tests have been conducted there in March or April. North Korean leadership may feel more comfortable with its missile program being developed at the Sohae facility and other locations rather than Tonghae.
Second, North Korea leadership has been pushing its byungjin line policy of pursuing “simultaneous development of nuclear weapons and the economy.” There has been no indication from the North Korean leadership is backing down from the nuclear weapons development side of their policies. Missile development and capability is vital as the delivery mechanism for those nuclear weapons. Thus, it would seem less likely North Korea would continue to develop its nuclear weapons but begin to cut back on its missile program.
Lastly, the North Korean leadership knows satellites are monitoring its facilities. North Korea has done well hiding things from detection in the past. Perhaps North Korea is still pursuing missile development, just not at the Tonghae launch pad. Moreover, reports about North Korea trying to use mobile missile launchers create new problems for the United States and its allies like South Korea and Japan.
With a country that has a leadership and government like North Korea, all the information we can get is necessary, especially from satellites. While running through all possible scenarios is important, it should be clear from all the information we have so far that North Korea has not yet changed its policies, and thus, a reduction in missiles is a highly premature conclusion from these satellite photos.
Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs for the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.