In the preceding week, U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed that North Korea has started to dismantle a rocket engine test stand at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, on the country’s west coast, The Diplomat has learned from U.S. government sources with knowledge of the latest intelligence on North Korea’s ballistic missile program.
The recent intelligence assessment is consistent with a finding first released Tuesday by 38North open source satellite imagery analyst Joe Bermudez, who also published images showing the dismantlement activity at the site.
The liquid propellant engine test stand at Sohae has been used by North Korea to conduct multiple rocket engine tests, including at least two tests of the engines that ended up powering the first stage of its two flight-tested intercontinental-range ballistic missiles, the Hwasong-14 and the Hwasong-15. (The Hwasong-15 engine was not tested there in its flight-tested configuration, however.)
Last week’s assessment also stated that the stand “can be reconstituted within months,” a U.S. government source told The Diplomat, underlining that, for now, the changes North Korea had made would be reversible.
“The engine test stand tear down does not severely impact North Korea’s liquid fuel engine development,” the source added, highlighting that the facility was no longer critical for the mass production of ballistic missiles in North Korea.
As Bermudez’s imagery shows, North Korea has dismantled the metal superstructure at the test stand, but not the concrete foundation on which the testing apparatus rests. Destroying the concrete foundation could increase the length of time required to reconstitute the site.
Dismantling the engine test stand could never truly be “irreversible,” given that North Korea can always constitute these stands at other sites or even at Sohae.