A Monumental Success

“What’s the point of geolocating missile launches?” you might ask.  Almost all of our analyses start with the simple act of putting a place to picture or a video.  “Where did this happen?”  Place seems like an obvious, well, place to start.  But sometimes it is hard to explain why that is.

Today, though, I have a really good example of how geolocation can yield a cultural or psychological insight.  By geolocating  the precise location of North Korea’s ICBM test in November, we also get a glimpse into how Kim Jong Un and other leaders in North Korea think about nuclear weapons.

That’s because North Korea is now constructing a monument at the site of the November 2017 launch.


On November 28, North Korea launched a new ICBM called the Hwasong-15.  “After watching the successful launch of the new type ICBM Hwasong-15,” the official Korean Central News Agency reported, “Kim Jong Un declared with pride that now we have finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force, the cause of building a rocket power.”

The launch occurred from a site located at 39.316320°, 125.882683° — about 4 km northeast of a well-known automotive factory where Kim Jong Un viewed pre-launch activities.

One of the tell tale signs was that North Korea had built a rudimentary launch site on the November 26 or 27, just a day or two before the launch.  This is pretty typical — North Korea probably makes last minute preparations to preserve the secrecy of the launch location as long as possible.

And then, after the test, something interesting happened.

Sometime between February 1017, there was more construction activity. At first, I wondered if I had made a mistake. Maybe the construction was for something else, and the timing was just a coincidence. I then I realized what was happening: North Korea was building a monument to the launch.

Monument Construction Activity:

dec 5 feb 11 feb 21 mar 1 mar 11

The existence of a monument, along with parking spaces, suggests we may see this site again. Perhaps Kim Jong Un will make a visit, allowing us to see ground-truth images.

After the Hwasong-15 launch, North Korea invited the missileers to Pyongyang, held a concert, and issued a stamp. But those were all things North Korea had done before. This was the first time I had ever seen North Korean build a monument. And so I started to wonder. Did the Hwasong-14 also get a monument?

The launch site of the first Hwasong-14, on July 4, was initially located by the amazing Aldin Abazović.  I took a second look at satellite images of the site and there it is.  North Korea built two monuments to commemorate the first test of the Hwasong-14.


North Korea has built monuments at the site of both the first Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 launches.

So what?  For a long time, we’ve noticed that the growing role of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles in North Korean propaganda.  Jeffrey and Hanah Rhee wrote a short article first noting the change in emphasis that one could see in North Korean films.  Under Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s propaganda apparatus has placed even greater emphasis on these programs.  The monuments are new.  But they suggest an ongoing effort by the government to memorialize the event.  Missile launches clearly mean a lot to the North Koreans.

Recently, Kim Jong Un reportedly told a group of visiting South Koreans that “achieving denuclearization is his father’s dying wish …” These two monuments suggest that his son may have a different set of priorities.

Special Thanks to Marco Langbroek for helping to verify the Hwasong-15 launch site.

Follow on conversation about the geolocation and more image fun on the ACW Slack channel: TBA