SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea has stopped construction on a launch pad where intercontinental-range rockets could be tested, an interruption possibly due to heavy rains and that could stall completion up to two years, according to an analysis of new satellite imagery.
Despite the setback, however, Pyongyang is also refurbishing for possible future use another existing pad at the same complex that has been used for past rocket launches, according to the analysis of Aug. 29 images provided to The Associated Press by 38 North, the website of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
While the renovations don't mean a launch is imminent, they indicate North Korea is preparing the site for possible future rocket tests, according to the 38 North special report written by Nick Hansen.
North Korea conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, but experts don't believe Pyongyang has yet mastered the technology needed to shrink a nuclear weapon so it can be mounted onto the tip of a long-range missile.
There are worries, however, about North Korea's rocket and missile programs. The United States, South Korea and others have said North Korea uses rocket launches, including a failed effort in mid-April, as covers to test banned missile systems that could target parts of the United States. North Korea says recent rocket launches were meant to put peaceful satellites into orbit.
North Korea has repeatedly vowed to push ahead with its nuclear program in the face of what it calls U.S. hostility that makes a "nuclear deterrence" necessary.
Both the new launch pad where work has been suspended and the existing launch pad being refurbished are at the Tonghae launch complex, which houses nine facilities around the villages of Musudan, No-dong and Taepo-dong on the northeast coast, according to the report.
"Despite the temporary halt in construction at the new Tonghae launch pad and the failed test last April, the North Koreans appear determined to eventually build bigger and better rockets," Joel Wit, a former U.S. State Department official and editor of 38 North, told AP.
The failed April launch of Pyongyang's new Unha-3 rocket occurred at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in Tongchang-ri, a sophisticated, newer site on the country's northwestern coast.
The new commercial satellite photos of Tonghae, taken by DigitalGlobe, also show halted construction at fuel and oxidizer buildings near the new pad, the analysis said. Those buildings are described as crucial to any future tests.
The exact reason for the halt isn't clear, but the analysis says the rains this summer that killed dozens of people and submerged large amounts of farmland are one explanation. North Korea is particularly vulnerable to natural disasters because of its poor drainage, widespread deforestation and poor infrastructure.
There are no workers or heavy construction equipment at the new pad site. No flooding can be seen in the new photos, but the analysis speculates that the construction equipment may have been moved to help with rebuilding efforts elsewhere. It says that heavy equipment can only get to the site by a rutted dirt trail that crosses a stream.
"Whatever the reason, the slowdown, barring concerted North Korean efforts to make up for lost time, could result in a 1-2 year slip in the planned completion date of the new complex, which was probably the middle of this decade," the report said.
It said Pyongyang can still launch longer-range rockets from its Sohae facility.
The analysis also notes as an "important new development" the start of what could be a new launch control center meant for the entire complex. It's the only site "where work is proceeding at a rapid pace," the report said.
The images are also said to show "further, although very slow, progress" at a structure meant to build future long-range rocket stages. North Korea has also apparently improved is ability to destroy launched missiles, "an important development since rockets from Tonghae can come close to or overfly Japan."