North Korea Expanding Key Missile Site

This post is authored by Jeffrey Lewis and Dave Schmerler

Despite the April 27 Panmunjom Declaration, in which North and South Korea “confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula,” satellite images captured by Planet show that North Korea is completing a major expansion of an important factory for producing solid rocket motors for North Korea’s nuclear-armed missiles.

The expansion is taking place at the Chemical Material Institute in Hamhung, which is an important facility in North Korea’s missile program – it produces wound-filament airframes and nozzles for North Korea’s solid-fueled missiles, probably including the Pukgugsong series of missiles. (The Chemical Materials Institute also produces components for other missiles as well as the tips of the reentry vehicles.)

Airframes from the Chemical Material Institute are then sent to the No. 17 Factory in Hungnam, where they are filled with solid propellant to make a rocket motor.  The rocket motor is then probably sent for final assembly at a location near Magunpo where the nozzles are attached and where static motor tests are conducted.  (In addition to these three sites, North Korea constructs launchers for the missiles at locations near Kusong — itself a cool geolocation using imagery from Planet — and Sinpo.  North Korea conducts tests launches from mobile launchers at locations around the country and at sea.)

Planet Labs

North Korea publicly announced plans to expand the production of rocket motors at the Chemical Material Institute in mid-2017.  During an August visit, Kim Jung Un instructed the Institute to to increase the production of solid rocket motors:

He instructed the institute to produce more solid-fuel rocket engines and rocket warhead tips by further expanding engine production process and the production capacity of rocket warhead tips and engine jets by carbon/carbon compound material.

At the time, David Schmerler used other images from Kim’s visit to locate the Chemical Material Institute, which is in Hamhung: 39.9573° 127.5562°

During Kim’s visit, he also posed in front a large image showing an artist’s conception of the planned expansion of the facility.

Planet Labs

At the time of Kim’s visit, the expansion of the plant as seen in the artist’s conception had not begun.   Using images provided by Planet Labs in San Francisco, we can see that ground-breaking on the site started not long after Kim’s visit.

 

The foundations for the major buildings were largely in place by April.  The bulk of construction, however, occurred during May – after the meeting at Panmunjom that resulted in the commitment to denuclearize.  (Kim reaffirmed his Panmunjom commitment in Singapore.)  The expansion of the production facilities at the Chemical Material Institute largely matches the diagram shown to Kim, although there are minor differences in office and administrative buildings.

Planet Labs

The expansion suggests that, despite hopes for denuclearization, Kim Jong Un is committed to increasing North Korea’s stockpile of nuclear-armed missiles.  In particular, the expansion appears to make good on Kim Jong Un’s May 2017 instruction, following the successful test of a Pukguksong-2 type solid fueled missile, that “this type of missile should be rapidly mass-produced in a serial way to arm the KPA Strategic Force…”

The production of airframes and nozzles at the Chemical Material Institute is, of course, only the first step in rocket motor production.  We should expect to see changes at the other two sites as well.  In fact, there is evidence that North Korea is preparing to expand the other two sites, although work in both places appears to be in the very early stages.

Over the past few months, North Korea has created a new entrance road for the No. 17 Factory, which manufactures the propellant for North Korea’s solid rocket motors.  This new entrance provides easier access between the suspected propellant manufacturing area (identified by the UN Panel of Experts) via an internal rail line and roads connecting to other two facilities in Hamhung and Magunpo. The new entrance and road may reflect an expectation that there will be a larger flow of traffic as more airframes are transported from Hamhung to the No. 17 Factory to be filled and then sent to Magunpo for final assembly.  (At the moment, the No. 17 Factory does not appear to have a suitable facility for final assembly of the missiles.)

Planet Labs

North Korea has also begun to clear older buildings at the Magunpo test site.  The Magunpo site is located on a former surface-to-air missile emplacement.  In mid-June, Planet captured images showing that a barracks building left over from this period had been demolished.  In light of the expansion of the other facilities, we suspect the demolition signals a future expansion of the facility.  North Korea might seek to expand the site either to provide additional floorspace for assembly of new missiles or housing for workers based at the site.

Planet Labs

The expansion of the production infrastructure for North Korea’s solid-fueled missile infrastructure probably suggests that Kim Jong Un does not intend to abandon his nuclear and missile programs.  However, this expansion remains in the early stages. The paint is hardly dry at the Chemical Material Institute. A verifiable freeze on missile production now may still offer the possibility of limiting the size of North Korea’s emerging solid-fueled missile arsenal.  But the Trump Administration will have to act quickly.

Moreover, it is important that any freeze be founded upon a solid understanding of the structure of North Korea’s solid-fueled missile program.  A recent and widespread misunderstanding about the structure of the Pukguksong program demonstrates the danger of engaging in a diplomatic process that is not adequately informed by a comprehensive picture of North Korea’s solid-fuel missile programs.

Some observers, for example, recently interpreted the removal of a test rig at a facility near Kusong as a significant confidence-building measure.  The Kusong facility, however, manufactures tracked vehicles that transport and launch the missiles, not the missiles themselves.  The rig was used to test the vehicle’s canister that ejects the missile before it fires.  The tear-down of the rig is relatively meaningless now that the vehicle is in production and in light of the expansion underway at Hamhung.

Although we believe we understand the basic relationship of the three facilities and see ongoing activity at each of them, additional monitoring is necessary to develop a more comprehensive picture of patters of activity at these sites.  We are now working with our partners at Airbus to acquire synthetic aperture radar (SAR) images of these sites.  SAR images may reveal additional information, such as traffic patterns within each site or show objects that have moved.  These images will provide a better understanding of activity within each site, as well as their inter-relationship.

In the event that there is a freeze, a reduction in tension and, eventually, a move toward the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, the case of Iraq may provide a useful precedent.  Iraq, like North Korea, based its pre-1991 solid-fueled missile program around three facilities with similar functions: The Dhu al-Fiqar plant for manufacture of the motor cases and the flexible-joint nozzle; the Taj al-Ma‘arik plant for the manufacture of the propellant and filling of motors; and the Al-Yawm al-Azim plant for motor assembly and static testing.

In Iraq, Inspectors prepared lists of equipment – such as large mixers and mixer bowls, as well as casting tools – at the sites that needed to be destroyed, as well as lists of equipment that could be used for non-proscribed purposes under monitoring.    For North Korea, such lists would need to include many items, not limited to machine tools at the Chemical Material Institute associated with the production of wound filament airframes and nozzles; mixers and bowls at the No. 17 Factory; and the static test stands near Magunpo.  Such measures would need to be undertaken carefully, however, as Iraq attempted to reconstitute its solid-fueled missile program by repairing the mixers and some of the bowls.  Moreover, Iraq also attempted to use smaller bowls to cast segmented motors of larger size.

If disarmament measures in Iraq fell short of complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement, they nonetheless represented a significant impediment to Iraq’s missiles ambitions post-1991.  Such an outcome in North Korea would certainly be far preferable to the situation today, in which Pyongyang’s aspirational statements about disarmament are backed by a steady move toward the mass production of a yet another nuclear-armed missile system.

Comments

  1. Allen Thomson (History)

    > which is in Hamhung: 39.957300° 127.556200°

    If I might be allowed to ride a favorite hobbyhorse for a second, one degree along a great circle is 111 km. So one place to the right of the decimal place is ~10 km and six places is ~ 10 cm. The facility in question is a couple of hundred meters across, so accuracy to the 10 cm level definitely needs some justification.

    • Jeffrey Lewis (History)

      I put the geolocation on the building Kim visited and meant to delete the trailing zeros for the reason you mention.

  2. nick (History)

    How long will it take for North Korea to produce solid fueled ICBMs? Why is casting a large rocket motor so much harder than casting a small rocket motor in terms if the engineering involved? What are the challenges that need to be overcome?

    • George William Herbert (History)

      That’s a whole other post…

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