North Korea hurriedly launched a so-called spy satellite in the middle of the night on May 27, but it reportedly failed when the rocket’s first-stage booster exploded two minutes after liftoff. High-resolution Maxar satellite photos taken the next morning, some 10 hours after the failed launch, show a quiet Sohae Satellite Launching Station.

The Sohae Satellite Launching Station, which looks deserted like a beach after summer, appears relatively relaxed and calm as usual before and after launches. No movement of people or cars could be seen at the newly built coastal launch station – the facility is simply desolate. Nearby, tunneling is underway to connect an access road to the launch site. Several other facilities are also under construction, including a VIP viewing platform.

The failure of the latest launch must have hurt the pride of both North Korea and Russia. Given the fiery temperament of North Korea’s young leader, we must be concerned that Kim – unable to contain his anger – may vent his rage by launching a sudden provocation against the South.

Sohae Satellite Launching Station immediately after the failed launch

Things appear quiet, with no discernible personnel or vehicle movement in this high-resolution Maxar satellite photo taken about 10 hours after the failed launch of a spy satellite. Imagery=GE1 (© 2024 Maxar, U.S.G. Plus)

In color satellite photos (resolution: 40 centimeters) taken by GeoEye-1 on May 28, the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in Tongchang-ri, Cholsan County, North Pyongan Province, looks quiet immediately after the failed launch, with little out of the ordinary. A 25-meter by 25-meter mobile assembly structure faces the sea, with two large steel towers on either side to act as lightning rods. Between the lightning rod towers are four more towers with night lights and cameras. Beyond the launch pad, the parking lot appears empty, while a few support structures appear nearby. The forest obscures the support structure with the blue roof – only its color can be seen. No human or vehicle activity is visible at the launch site, just a hushed silence, like a stage after the curtain has fallen.

Launch preparations take place inside the mobile assembly structure – the satellite is attached to the launch vehicle, the mobile structure is moved back and fuel is injected into the rocket. Because the launch vehicle itself is only visible for a short time, it is virtually impossible to capture the preparations in satellite imagery. Moreover, since most of the work is done at night, it cannot be captured by optical satellite cameras. North Korea knows full well that the international community is watching it with satellites, so it usually conducts its clandestine activities at night, as if playing hide-and-seek. In the dark of night, ordinary optical color satellite imagery becomes useless. Instead, one could use Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellite imagery, which can take photos at night, but even this has its limitations. The reality is that even if you know that North Korea is preparing secret military activities, it is difficult to detect them using satellites.

Scorch marks behind the horizontal engine test site

North Korea conducted several engine tests at the horizontal engine test site with the help of Russian technicians. Imagery=GE1 (©2024 Maxar, U.S.G. Plus)

The horizontal engine test site near the launch site also appears quiet, with nothing out of the ordinary detected. A mobile assembly structure is on rails extending from the test site, and fuel and oxidizer storage buildings are nearby. Beneath the towering test stand is an exhaust stack that emits hot flames during engine testing. Behind the engine test stand are large scorch marks where flames burned grass and trees. The burned area is 1,520 square meters. Many Russian technicians reportedly visited the site to provide new technology for rocket fire tests. Nevertheless, the satellite launch failed.

Construction of tunnel linking launch site

Several structures are still under construction at the Tongchang-ri launch site. North Korea is drilling a 640-meter tunnel for an access road to the new coastal launch site. Imagery=GE1 (©2024 Maxar, U.S.G. Plus)

Several facilities are under construction at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, including a VIP viewing stand. Excavation is underway to open an access road to the new launch site. Looking at the tunnel construction area, we see excavation work on both sides of a small hill, 640 meters apart. Several dump trucks appear in front of the western shaft to the left, while several excavators are also at work. In front of the eastern shaft on the right, we can see the leachate that has collected on the ground after flowing out of the tunnel as workers drilled through the hill. The new coastal launch site is 1.64 kilometers in a straight line from the eastern entrance of the tunnel.

Both North Korea and Russia are in a tight spot after the failed spy satellite launch. North Korea followed Russia’s lead, trusting its advanced technology, but failed again. Russia’s prestige as a great power was also damaged, as doubts were raised about its technology and capabilities. North Korea’s young leader was probably desperate as well. Aides who accompanied and supported the leader must have felt like traitors trying to hide in a rat hole. Senior figures are probably nervous, watching the young leader’s mood to see where his arrows of rebuke will fly. High-ranking North Korean bureaucrats barely live a life worth living. “They usually live with one foot in the grave,” one North Korean defector has said.

Another concern, at least for South Koreans, is that we have no idea what provocations North Korea’s young leader will take against South Korea to vent his anger. Military experts predict he will launch a drone attack using unmanned vehicles. The war in Ukraine demonstrated the effectiveness and power of drones in modern warfare, and North Korea has likely learned that lesson. Analysts also say that North Korea has shifted the strategic focus of its air force from expensive fighter planes to cheap drones. Infiltrating the South with a few dozen or a few hundred drones carrying explosives would cause great chaos and shock to South Korean society. I would like to urge the South Korean defense ministry and security authorities, who are responsible for protecting the lives and property of 50 million South Koreans, to take a firm and impregnable defense posture.

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