Satellite images appear to show that North Korea has dismantled one of its missile testing sites, according to an analysis published by 38 North, a prominent North Korea monitoring group.
The images, shot on May 19, show that many of the structures – including impact pads and a support structure that can hold up a missile at Iha-ri, in the northwest of the country, have been razed.
The site was believed to have been used for the development of the Pukguksong-2, one of North Korea’s solid-fueled medium-range ballistic missiles. Solid fueled missiles are easier to transport because liquid fuel is more volatile.
Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., who authored the report, told CNN that it is too early to say whether the site’s dismantlement is part of a bigger commitment to scaling back its missile testing program. Experts say North Korea is aware of how intensely its activities are scrutinized via satellite imagery, and has been known to factor that into their decision making.
“If I see similar activity or lack of activity elsewhere, than I can say it is significant. If I don’t, I would say that it is less significant,” said Bermudez.
“They know we’re watching,” he said. “They deliberately practice what we call CCD – camouflage, conceal and deception. We have to view this in that context.”
North Korea’s missile program made strides in 2017, with Pyongyang saying it successfully test-fired three intercontinental ballistic missiles. Experts say the Hwasong-15, which was launched in late November, can likely hit much of the United States.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump are expected to discuss Pyongyang’s weapons programs when the two meet Tuesday in Singapore. It will be the first meeting between a sitting US President and a North Korean leader.
The Iha-ri dismantlement comes after Kim agreed to refrain from testing missiles while engaging in dialogue with South Korea in March. Kim declared in April that his country would no longer test nuclear weapons because it had already successfully developed them.
Journalists, including a team from CNN, were invited to watch the North Koreans blow up the tunnels and some of the buildings at the Punggye-ri test site last month but no nuclear experts witnessed the event.
While the Punggye-ri facility is made up of tunnels deep underground and was believed to be heavily fortified, Iha-ri was composed of facilities that were relatively to take apart.
The Pukguksong-2 was believed to have been test fired at the site in February 2017. After a second launch in May 2017, the North Koreans declared the missile combat-ready and said it would enter into mass production, according to the country’s state-run KCNA news agency.
The site has been inactive for some time, which means the North Koreans could be finished with it, according to Dave Schmerler, a research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
“Maybe this is a very shallow offering to the satellites, to the people watching to say, hey, we’re playing nice,” he said. “Maybe they’re just done with testing,”