Is North Korea Giving Up On Building New Rockets?

Dashiell Bennett
Is North Korea Giving Up On Building New Rockets?

Satellite images of North Korea appear to show that the construction of a major rocket launching facility has been halted, leaving international analysts guessing as to what it all means. The Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground was intended to be a major new facility for building, testing, and firing large rockets and ballistic missiles on the northeast coast of the Korean peninsula. However, new satellite images obtained by the Associated Press seem to show that construction was halted about eight months ago, and the site has been allowed to decay.

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No one knows for certain why North Korea would abandon this major missile project, particularly since the decision was made around the same time it was ramping up efforts to test nuclear weapons (their last test was in February) and launch new missiles into the ocean. Among the theories being thrown about are that construction workers were diverted elsewhere, that existing facilities are adequate for their needs, or — most intriguingly — that Pyongyang is simply giving up on the idea of building bigger and better rockets.

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If that were the case, it would basically mean an end to (or at least a suspension of) both their space program and their dream of building long-range nuclear missiles that could threaten the United States coastline.

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Of course, if you agree with that interpretation of the evidence it still doesn't explain why Kim Jong-un and his military advisers would change course like this. Perhaps they are simply out of money, or if you can believe it, they're actually trying to make friends. Suspending the rocket program could be a way to defuse tensions with South Korea and the U.S. in the hopes of restarting diplomatic talks that could ease the harsh sanctions placed on their country. 

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Whatever their reasoning, the country does appear to be scaling back its missile program, perhaps even abandoning new development altogether. Even if construction at the facility — which is already being overrun by vegetation and is surrounded by unfinished roads — were to be restarted, the project is at least a year behind schedule and wouldn't be ready until 2017 or later.