A fresh batch of evidence emerged Friday bolstering speculation that North Korea may be counting down to another rocket launch.
After analyzing Nov. 23 and 26 aerial photos, the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University said the communist country may be able to complete preparations at its Dongchang station by the end of next week.
“If Pyongyang follows past practice in preparing for a launch, it could be ready to fire a rocket as early as the end of the first week in December,” Nick Hansen, a retired expert on imagery technology, said on the think tank’s blog.
He cited trailers carrying the first two stages of a rocket parked near the main missile assembly facility, which he called “a clear indicator that the rocket stages are being checked out before moving to the pad for an eventual launch.”
|This Nov. 26 satellite image provided by DigitalGlobe and annotated by 38 North shows the Sohae Satellite Launch Station in Cholsan County, North Pyongan Province, North Korea. (AP-Yonhap News)|
Among other major improvements spotted were empty tanks indicating that the propellant buildings at the pad have likely been filled, a temporary building with a possible antenna to monitor a liftoff, instrumentation trailers nearby, and increased activity at structures used to house VIPs in the past.
But Hansen said an early launch appears unlikely because the regime has not yet informed international aviation, maritime or telecommunication agencies of its plan as it has done prior to previous liftoffs.
The latest analysis is buttressing earlier forecast by DigitalGlobe Inc., a U.S.-based commercial satellite operator, that the North’s fifth missile launch could occur in the next three weeks, citing progress at the same site.
Burwell Bell, a former U.S. Forces Korea commander, has attributed the apparent rocket preparations to Pyongyang’s effort to flaunt its possession of transporters of atomic weapons to the U.S. and the South, Voice of America reported Friday.
He also said that despite past failures, the regime would overcome technical obstacles and soon be able to fire an ICBM, it added.
Pyongyang has asserted its right to space by putting a satellite into orbit. Its attempts in 1998, 2006, 2009 and April were all unsuccessful.
Seoul and Washington strongly denounced this as a disguised test for a ballistic missile and a breach of U.N. bans on any nuclear or missile activity by the unruly country.
If Pyongyang decides to go ahead, it will likely face an additional round of stifling sanctions.
The U.N. Security Council’s North Korea sanctions committee called on the regime to refrain from firing a rocket.
“We all agree it would be extremely inadvisable to proceed with the test,” said Jose Filipe Moraes Cabral, a Portuguese ambassador and chair of the committee, told reporters after a regular Thursday session in New York.
Cabral said that it’s “obvious” that “there is concern.” He did not elaborate.
Later Friday, a Chinese delegation led by Li Jianguo, a member of the Communist Party’s Politburo, visited North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang.
The North’s state media said Li delivered Xi’s letter, which is speculated to be designed to dissuade Kim from any missile liftoff.
Li, who is also vice chairman and secretary general of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, is accompanied by other senior officials including Wang Jiarui, head of the party’s International Department. Pyongyang is the first leg of their four-day tour that will also take them to Laos and Vietnam.
In Beijing, Lim Sung-nam, the Foreign Ministry’s special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs in charge of six-party denuclearization talks, met with his Chinese counterpart Wu Dawei to discuss the current situation and cooperation.
Wu reportedly said that China will continue to play an active role in stabilizing the peninsula under its new leadership. Lim’s two-day trip was his first since Xi became Beijing’s de facto leader early this month.
By Shin Hyon-hee (email@example.com