The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or “North Korea”) conducted a major test at the Sohae Satellite Launching Pad (SSLP), on December 7, 2019. Pyongyang has not revealed the nature of the test and only referred to it as “having an important impact on changing the strategic position of the DPRK.” The mysterious test took place ahead of the December 31st deadline set by DPRK President Kim Jong-Un, for a new denuclearization proposal from Washington.
MISSILE ENGINE TEST
Satellite imagery released by Planet Labs show nefarious activity at the SSLP, including vehicles and a big container. Before-and-after analysis shows the terrain near the launching pad severely scorched, on December 8, 2019. It is virtually certain the the exhaust of a big engine “burned” the ground.
Likely before/after images from @planet that suggest North Korea conducted a rocket engine test at Sohae. Vehicles and objects appear on December 7 to conduct the test. They are mostly gone on December 8, but the ground appears to have been disturbed by the exhaust from the test. pic.twitter.com/cqhh8ABywM
— Jeffrey Lewis (@ArmsControlWonk) December 8, 2019
The engine tested likely belonged to either a space launch vehicle (SLV) or an intermediate/ intercontinental ballistic missile (IR/ICBM). North Korean President Kim Jong Un promised to stop ICBM tests if his American counterpart will reduce and ultimately cancel the annual US-South Korean exercises. The last ICBM test occurred in November 29, 2017, when the two-stage, liquid-fuel Hwasong-15/ KN-22 was successfully launched. Since then, the DPRK has only test-fired short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) and multiple-rocket launchers – none of them being able to reach the continental U.S.
The resumption of missile engine tests in Sohae would also break a “gentlemen’s agreement” reached between Trump and Kim Jong-Un during the Singapore summit. The DPRK dismantled the critical test site in mid-2018 as promised, however the SSLP was re-activated in March 2019.
PYONGYANG IS ON STAND-BY
This latest test in Sohae suggests that the DPRK is furthering its ICBM strike technology covertly or within the limits of the denuclearization talks. Alternatively, Pyongyang could also be preparing to break loose of the agreement and conduct its first ICBM live-test in over two years. By restarting missile tests in Sohae, Pyongyang hopes to pressure President Trump into giving up further concessions, as the denuclearization talks are seemingly “dying”. If negotiations fail, the DPRK will be able to immediately resume its ICBM program by improving the operational functions of the Hwasong-15/ KN-22 (e.g. accuracy, terminal maneuvering, re-entry vehicle) or by exploring other ICBM-types.