Washington, Mar 9: Days after a satellite imagery showed that North Korea has rapidly rebuilt a satellite launch facility on the country's west coast, a new Commercial satellite imagery of a facility near Pyongyang has suggested that North Korea was preparing to launch a missile or space rocket in the near future.
According to US National Public Radio (NPR), the report is based on exclusive access to satellite photographs of North Korea's Sanumdong site, a facility that has been used by Pyongyang for the production of intercontinental missiles and space rockets in the past.
The images, taken February 22 by DigitalGlobe and shared exclusively with NPR, show cars and trucks parked near the facility. Rail cars sit in a nearby rail yard, where two cranes are also erected.
"When you put all that together, that's really what it looks like when the North Koreans are in the process of building a rocket," Jeffrey Lewis, Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Project at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Calif said after studying the images.
The Sohae facility which came into the news last week, was partially dismantled after President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un held their first summit in June 2018.
Lewis further cautioned that it is impossible to know whether the North Koreans are preparing a military missile or a rocket that could carry a civilian satellite into space. ''It's also impossible to know when any launch might happen'', he added.
Additional images of the Sanumdong site taken on Friday by another company, San Francisco-based Planet, show that vehicle activity has died down and that one of the cranes has disappeared. That could mean that workers have paused work on an ICBM or rocket, perhaps while awaiting further parts.
North Korea expert with the One Earth Future Foundation, Melissa Hanham said, "According to Planet imagery, I can definitely say the train has left the station. But I can't unfortunately use X-ray vision to see what's on the train and tell whether it's a civilian space launch vehicle or a military ICBM"
The Middlebury researcher believes that it's most likely that the North Koreans are preparing to launch a satellite into orbit adding that Kim reportedly visited the Sanumdong site at the end of 2017.
He also noted that such a launch should not necessarily be regarded as an aggressive move. Rockets used to launch satellites are usually unsuitable for use as long-range missiles, he said.
But earlier on Thursday, a senior official from US state department said that the US would regard any launch, including a space launch, as a violation of the goodwill between Trump and Kim.
"Let me just say, in our judgment, launch of a space launch vehicle from [Sohae] in our view would be inconsistent with the commitments that the North Koreans have made," the official told reporters.
A much anticipated meeting between the two leaders in the Vietnamese capital last week ended without a deal over differences in how much North Korea was willing to limit its nuclear programme before it was granted some sanction relief.
US National Security Adviser John Bolton has said that North Korea could yet face more sanctions if there is no progress on denuclearisation.
A historic first meeting between Mr Trump and Mr Kim in 2018 in Singapore produced a vaguely worded agreement on "denuclearisation" but little progress. (UNI)