North’s launch site upgrade finished: think tank

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North’s launch site upgrade finished: think tank

WASHINGTON - Construction to upgrade North Korea’s main rocket launch site now appears complete amid expectations in South Korea that a launch could take place in October, a U.S. research institute said Tuesday.

South Korean officials are predicting the North will mark the upcoming 70th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party with a “strategic provocation” - possibly a blastoff from the west coast site of Sohae, where Pyongyang launched its first rocket into space in Dec. 2012, drawing international condemnation.

The U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies says commercial satellite imagery taken July 21 shows Pyongyang has done quick work since the spring of constructing a support building on the launch pad where rockets would be prepared. It has also apparently completed a moveable structure on rails, several stories high, that could be used to shift rockets or rocket stages to the launch tower.

But the institute says there is no evidence that launch preparations are yet underway.

“Despite the fact that the facility is ready after completing a construction program begun in 2013, we still see no sign of preparations at the Sohae facility for an October event,” said Joel Wit, a former U.S. State Department official and the editor of the institute’s website, 38 North.

The North’s unpredictable Kim Jong-un has closely associated himself with the impoverished nation’s space program, which it says is peaceful.

In early May, state media quoted Kim as saying the North would launch satellites into space at the time and locations chosen by the ruling party.

North Korea is barred under UN Security Council resolutions from launching rockets, as that technology can also be used to launch ballistic missiles.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency last week cited unnamed government sources as saying that North Korea has almost completed modifications at Sohae, including an extended launch tower, and that it would be used to fire a long-range missile larger than the rocket launched three years ago. This would mark the Oct. 10 anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea.

“I’m sure we’ll have a grand celebration,” Jang Il-hun, the North Korean ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters on Tuesday in response to a question about a possible missile test for the anniversary.

He added, “We are free to do whatever we want.”

Jang spoke at his country’s mission to the UN.

Satellite imagery expert Tim Brown also notes in the institute’s analysis that North Korea recently completed a 240-meter long (787-feet long) shelter to conceal a rail line intended for transporting equipment to the launch pad.

He said it would prevent observation by satellite of missile-related rail cars and shipping containers.

Much of the concern over North Korea’s development of ballistic missile capabilities is that they could be used to deliver nuclear weapons.

The North Korean ambassador to China, Ji Jae-ryong, said in Beijing on Tuesday that his country has no interest in the kind of nuclear deal that Iran reached this month with the United States and other world powers because North Korea is a “nuclear weapons state.”

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