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Satellite Images Show North Korea Is Reassembling Rocket Test Site


It appears that North Korea has started rebuilding the facilities it uses to launch satellites into orbit. A missile engine testing stand in North Korea was dismantled last year. That was back when North Korea was promoting its interest in denuclearization. But last week, a summit between President Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong Un ended with no deal, and days later, satellite imagery is showing that stand has been rebuilt. NPR's Anthony Kuhn is monitoring all of this from Seoul, South Korea.

Good morning, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, David.

GREENE: So what's North Korea up to here?

KUHN: So this launch site is known as Sohae, also known as Tongchang-ri, and it's near the - it's on the west coast of North Korea. And previously, they had launched what they claimed were satellites from there. The U.S. said they were actually just rocket launch tests. And basically what it is, is you've got buildings where they put the rockets together. There is a rail system that takes them to the launch pad, sets them up and launches them. And last year, Kim Jong Un said, we are dismantling these to his show our goodwill, and you, the U.S., have to reciprocate by removing some sanctions.

Now, recent satellite pictures show that they are putting these things back together - the buildings, the rail system, the launch pad. It's not exactly clear when they started. It could have started in mid-February, before the summit. Work could have been going on as recently as over the weekend, after the summit finished.

GREENE: OK. So the timing of this is a little tricky about whether this is North Korea responding to those summit talks falling apart.

KUHN: That's right. A couple things to remember. First of all, you know, they can launch missiles from mobile launchers. So this site is not that big a deal. Another thing is that when North Korea made these gestures and said, now, why don't you reciprocate? People were just dismissing these as insignificant concessions. They were saying, you know, North Korea's just trying to hand us their junk. These sites are outdated. They're not worth much. Well, by that token, then people should not be too alarmed about them being reassembled.

GREENE: OK. So I mean, but we've always talked about that North Korea's nuclear capabilities are, you know, something to be reckoned with. So explain exactly why we're not supposed to be so concerned about this one move.

KUHN: Well, the nuclear situation, as opposed to the rocket situation, is much more complicated.

GREENE: I see.

KUHN: This is sort of where talks fell apart in Hanoi. What North Korea offered was their main nuclear site, which is called Yongbyon, but people are really divided on what that is worth. How much of their fissile material capabilities are there? Some people say half. Some people say more. There are other sites which U.S. and South Korean intelligence know about, but North Korea does not admit that. President Trump said he asked for those to be dismantled in addition to Yongbyon. Kim Jong Un was reportedly surprised and would not do it. And that seems to be part of where the deal fell apart.

GREENE: So Anthony, based on what we heard from the North Koreans after this summit and after the deal fell apart, would it make sense that Kim would be doing something like this after he left Hanoi?

KUHN: Well, here's the thing. The North Koreans have not pointed their fingers at the U.S. and said these talks fell apart because of you. We haven't heard from them. Other people feel that Kim Jong Un is really highly invested in this process and he's not going to go back the other way. But they have warned that if things don't go well, they could take a more hostile tack. And this is what it could mean. It could mean going back to testing missiles and nuclear devices.

GREENE: NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Seoul. Anthony, thanks.

KUHN: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.