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Why North Korea’s restored rocket site isn’t cause for worry — yet

“Little Rocket Man” may be living up to his Trump-given nickname.

Commercial satellite imagery from March 2, 2019 shows renewed activity at Sohae, a space-launch facility in North Korea.
Commercial satellite imagery from March 2, 2019, shows renewed activity at Sohae, a space launch facility in North Korea.
DigitalGlobe/38 North via Getty Images

North Korea is rebuilding a satellite launch site it promised to entirely dismantle, and may have increased activity at a major missile factory — both actions that are likely meant to be warning signs to the United States and South Korea.

Should these moves be a precursor to even more aggressive actions by Pyongyang, or anger President Donald Trump, then the US and North Korea could end up moving away from diplomacy and back on the path to war.

South Korean intelligence and respected analysts this week revealed commercial satellite imagery that shows that North Koreans have been rebuilding an engine test stand and launch pad at a space launch facility at Sohae since at least February 16, and that it’s likely now back at a normal operating level. That’s a big deal, since Pyongyang promised Seoul last September that it would “permanently dismantle” the site and started to take it down last year.

“They basically reassembled what they disassembled” after Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore last year, Victor Cha, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an early analyst of the images, said on Thursday to a Washington audience.

Hours earlier, South Korean media reported that there’s been extra movement at a missile factory known as Sanumdong, the same one that first produced the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could reach the United States. South Korea’s spy chief, Suh Hoon, reportedly told lawmakers that he believed the increased activity there was missile-related.

This is all very troubling, especially since Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un just met in Vietnam for their second summit to curb nuclear tensions. Talks broke down, though, over the US demand that Pyongyang give up all of its weapons — nuclear, chemical, biological — in exchange for nearly full sanctions relief.

Trump is already upset with the news. “I would be very disappointed if that were happening,” he told reporters on Wednesday when asked about Sohae. “I would be very, very disappointed in Chairman Kim.” Trump, of course, could ask his own intelligence community if “that were happening,” but perhaps he’d rather wait to see if someone talks about it on TV.

Experts I spoke to all expressed some concern about these developments. But there’s good news: None of them are panicking, which means you shouldn’t be either.

Here’s why.

Why you shouldn’t freak out about North Korea — yet

First, North Korea was already in the process of improving its nuclear and missile programs, which didn’t stop when Trump and Kim engaged in diplomacy last month. In a sense, these developments aren’t that new, and are merely an extension of the nation’s recent efforts.

Second, and to reiterate, Sohae is a space launch site that’s not integral to its ballistic missile program. North Korea has never tested an ICBM from this location, although it has launched space rockets from there. It’s possible Pyongyang might test another one of those rockets in the coming weeks — which would certainly be provocative — but it wouldn’t be the same as testing a deadly missile that could hit America or its allies.

“A satellite launch is in a gray zone but would definitely create problems for the Trump administration,” MIT nuclear expert Vipin Narang told me. “It could put us in a pickle,” especially if North Korea hardliners like National Security Adviser John Bolton use the launch to push Trump toward ending nuclear negotiations.

Third, North Korea is likely sending a political message more than a militaristic one. The North has repeatedly expressed frustration that the US hasn’t lifted current sanctions so Pyongyang would stop its nuclear program. By increasing activity at Sohae and the missile factory, Kim may be trying to pressure Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in to kill the financial penalties in place, and revive the inter-Korean economic integration plan, says Stimson Center expert Jenny Town, one of the analysts who first observed the satellite imagery.

The question now is how Trump will react. Even though he spent much of 2017 threatening to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea, he’s since spoken highly of Kim, said they “fell in love,” and talked openly about wanting to avoid war.

But if Kim continues these efforts, Trump’s patience could run out — and then we’re back on a very dangerous track.

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