In our 2019 second-quarter forecast, Stratfor noted that North Korea and the United States will focus on trying to tailor their mutual expectations and demands. Pyongyang's activities at two key missile program sites are a key signpost as to whether the two sides will be able to get their diplomatic outreach back on track.
The South Korean military said March 11 that it is closely watching North Korean facilities for signs the country may be preparing to conduct a satellite launch. Seoul's announcement follows several rounds of commercial satellite imagery over the past week showing activity at both the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in Tongchang-ri and at the Sanumdong missile production facility near Pyongyang.
On March 9, the Center for Strategic and International Studies released satellite photos confirming that North Korea has continued rebuilding activity at the Sohae station's launch pad and engine test stand, following earlier reports from 38 North that such activity had taken place at the facility on Feb. 16 and March 2. Such activity at the Sohae facility, which has also been used to test ballistic missile engines, could allow North Korea to prepare for a launch and conceal such preparations from observation.
The Middlebury Institute of International Studies also obtained satellite imagery of the Sanumdong missile production facility captured Feb. 22, confirming earlier reports of transportation activity by revealing the presence of vehicles, rail cars and cranes. Images captured by Planet Labs on March 8 now, however, show vehicular and crane activity have subsided, which could either mean a suspension of activity or that any device being loaded has already been moved.
Why It Matters
While this satellite imagery clearly shows activity at these key sites, North Korea's intentions (and the precise details of such action) remain ambiguous. The activity at Sohae began before U.S. President Donald Trump's second meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, which could indicate that the rebuilding of parts might have initially been a way to create leverage beforehand and provide more to dismantle following the expected agreements. The initial movement of vehicles at Sanumdong, also predating the summit, could be related to moving equipment or devices from the site to more easily concealed locations. The continued activity at both sites, however, may be related to fallout from the summit.
Since the Hanoi summit, White House officials have employed more hard-line rhetoric that calls for denuclearization first, followed only then by the easing of sanctions. While the Trump administration has emphasized that the president is still open to dialogue and potentially participating in another top-level meeting, such a position leaves little room for compromise between the two sides.
The high-profile collapse of the Hanoi summit may have emboldened regime hard-liners in North Korea to push for a more confrontational stance against the United States.
Going into the second Trump-Kim meeting, North Korea had high hopes for progress on sanctions relief and other actions by the United States. The high-profile collapse of the summit may have emboldened regime hardliners to push for a more confrontational stance against the United States. And a move, such as a satellite launch, could serve to showcase North Korean resolve, which would place diplomatic outreach with the United States in question and risk a return to a more confrontational path.
Meanwhile, the aftermath of the Trump-Kim summit has left South Korea stuck in in the middle between Washington and Pyongyang — alienated from both sides, and scrambling to bridge the gap. With the United States appearing to harden its stance, particularly on sanctions, there is little that Seoul can offer Pyongyang that would not run afoul of the U.S.-led maximum pressure front. Any inter-Korean moves would, therefore, be highly constrained by sanctions and would not satisfy North Korea, which is hoping for broader sanctions relief and not small, token gestures as the regime tries to alleviate food shortages and return to economic growth. In addition to South Korea, China may also take on a more prominent mediation role between the United States and North Korea, with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Kim potentially meeting in the coming days or weeks.
Originally scheduled for Feb. 27-28, the second summit between Trump and Kim abruptly ended midway through its first full day, breaking down over a mismatch between what both sides were willing to accept in terms of denuclearization and sanctions relief. Satellite launches have long been a key sticking point between the United States and North Korea, with Pyongyang insisting that such activities are key to civilian development.
Following the first Trump-Kim summit last year, North Korea pledged to both Washington and South Korea that it would dismantle the Sohae facility. Pyongyang had made significant progress to this end, although it suspended the tear down in August 2018. Several U.N. Security Council resolutions put in place since 2012 explicitly bar satellite launches, though North Korea has said it believes these measures violate its sovereignty.