North Korea has started rebuilding a key missile test site, analysts believe after spotting changes in recent satellite images of the facility.
Cranes were visible in parts of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, which is used to send satellites into orbit and test technology linked to intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The activity dates from between mid-February and early March – meaning it happened either before, during or just after Donald Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, in Vietnam.
Those talks collapsed after Mr Trump refused Kim’s offer to dismantle a major nuclear facility in return for lifting all economic sanctions adopted during his presidency.
Two respected North Korea expert groups, the Center for Strategic Studies’ Beyond Parallel project and 38 North, both concluded there had been activity at the site after studying satellite footage.
No ballistic missiles have ever been launched from the launch pad at Sohae/Tongchang-ri. It has only ever been used for satellite launches. The activity happening at Sohae now, while unfortunate, only shows construction going on, not anything that would indicate test prep.
— Jenny Town (@j3nnyt0wn) March 6, 2019
There were also reports that South Korea’s spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, made a similar assessment at a recent briefing to a committee of the country’s politicians.
Two parts of the Sohae station appear to have seen construction in recent weeks. At both the launch pad and the engine test site some buildings appear to have been reassembled. Two cranes can be seen at each area in satellite images.
The changes are significant because the facility has been dormant since August 2018, a few weeks after Mr Trump and Kim first met in Singapore and talks begun in earnest. Mr Trump has previously hailed the lack of activity at the site as a sign of progress.
2/ Aside from the fact that #DPRK has never tested an ICBM from Sohae—it's a space launch vehicle launch site—preparation for any launch would require a wide range of activities not observed in the imagery.
— Joel Wit (@Joel_Wit38) March 6, 2019
Experts warned against drawing too many conclusions from the changes, saying the activity does not necessarily mean the North Koreans are preparing to restart missile launches.
However they also noted that the regime would be aware that any developments at the facility would be spotted by the Americans, who monitor such sites, raising the possibility it is being used to increase pressure on the US during negotiations.
The path forward in denuclearisation talks remains unclear after Mr Trump walked out of talks with Kim in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, last week without coming to an agreement.
t is unclear when round-table negotiations will begin again. Both sides have played down the Vietnam row in recent days, but no new date for a meeting between Mr Trump and Kim has been set.
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