North Korean Missile Base at Yeongjeo-dong

By now you have probably seen the report by Zach Cohen at CNN citing the some research by the CNS team on a North Korean missile base.  Here is a longer version of the analysis.  Basic points:

  • We were looking at the Yeongjeo-dong missile base, and Kim Hyong Jik County, because this area would make an excellent location to base the new Hwasong-12 IRBMs, and Hwasong-14 or -15 ICBMs.
  • We were surprised to find a very well-camouflaged base near Yeongjeo-dong (7 miles away, near Hoejung-ni) that has not been previously described.  We probably would not have spotted it — it is very well camouflaged — except that North Korea constructed a new headquarters area around 2014.
  • We were even more surprised that North Korea, in the past year, began constructing a massive underground facility (UGF) at the Hoejung-ni site.

North Korean Missile Base at Yeongjeo-dong

Jeffrey Lewis and Dave Schmerler

Why are experts so skeptical of North Korea’s offer to dismantle the test stand it uses to test new rocket engines?  One reason is that North Korea is currently producing and deploying nuclear-armed missiles.  While closing a test stand would make it harder for North Korea to design new types of missiles, it would not prevent North Korea from continuing to mass-produce and deploy existing types of nuclear-armed missiles, including those that can strike the United States, as Kim Jong Un publicly announced that North Korea would do on 1 January 2018.

Missiles are being deployed at bases throughout North Korea, many of which have long been known to outside analysts. One such facility is the missile base near Yeongjeo-dong. The missile base at Yeongjeo-dong has long been a concern to US and South Korean officials because of its location deep in the mountainous interior of the country, up against the Chinese border. Because of that location, the base is a strong candidate to receive North Korea’s newer missiles, including those that can strike the United States.

Any denuclearization agreement would require North Korea to allow US or international inspectors to determine that these units are no longer armed with nuclear weapons. The Trump Administration has publicly promised to secure access to North Korean military facilities as part of any agreement.  Secretary of State Mike Pompeo published an article in Foreign Affairs in which he even promised a formal agreement with North Korea that would be “superior” to the agreement with Iran, and would include the inspection of military facilities.  If that statement means anything, it means inspectors in Yeongjeo-dong. In 2000, the United States sought access to this and other missile bases as part of an agreement to end North Korea’s missile program – and was rebuffed by Kim Jong Il, the father of the current leader.

Inspectors can’t take a look around Yeongjeo-dong — at least not yet — but satellites can.  We used moderate- and high-resolution images from Planet Labs, as well as high-resolution images from Digital Globe to analyze this site.

Satellite images show that the base remains active. That is hardly a surprise.  However, we discover that nearby, North Korea constructed, and is currently expanding, a new missile base — one that has not been publicly disclosed before now — near Hoejung-ni.  The expansion involves the construction of a massive underground facility (UGF) that North Korea started digging in late 2017.  Construction on this UGF has continued throughout 2018, even as the United States and South Korea have sought to portray North Korea as engaging in a process of denuclearization.

 

 

1.

Background

The original Yeongjeo-dong base is well known — and has long been a source of concern for the United States and South Korea.

In November 1998, intelligence sources told the Washington Post that North Korea was constructing a new missile base in North Korea for its long-range Taepodong missiles. “We have identified some construction that we think might be bunkers to store Taepo Dongs in” a senior U.S. official told Dana Priest and Thomas Lippman, “You could roll them out and elevate them into a position to launch.” The location was given as “Yongo dong” – although this is probably an error in transliteration.

In 1999, a series of press reports appeared in South Korea based on leaks from South Korean officials that indicated that North Korea was constructing this base, possibly for the Nodong missile — a medium-range ballistic missile well-suited for targeting locations in Japan. The press secretary for the South Korean government clarified that the location was “Yeongjeo-dong” and stated: “Something is being built in that location, and the South Korean and American military are very concerned about it.”

These leaks may have been the result of a North Korean scientist who defected to Japan in 1999. He described the construction of the Yeongjeo-dong base and said it was for Nodong missiles.  Although, like many defectors, some of his statements are unreliable, he provided a precise geographic description of the base. (A CNS research associate interviewed him in 2002.)

In October 2000, when Madeline Albright met with Kim Jong Il, she raised the issue of an agreement to verifiably eliminate North Korea’s long-range missiles. Kim Jong Un rejected access to Yeongjeo-dong. “As for the missiles already deployed, I don’t think we can do much about them,” Albright recalled Kim saying, “You can’t go inside the units and inspect them …”  The Clinton Administration’s effort to reach a missile deal collapsed in part over concerns about the lack of access to sites like Yeongjeo-dong.

In 2001, the World Food Program identified Kim Hyong Jik County, where the base is located, as one of many locations where it was denied access for security reasons.

The geography of the site makes it ideal to house long-range missiles. The base is located in the interior of North Korea, backed up against the Chinese border. It is this location that leads us to believe the general area is a strong candidate for the deployment of future missiles that can strike the United States.

 

2.

Yeongjeo-dong Missile Base Layout

The fact that there is a missile base at Yeongjeo-dong is hardly a secret.  In 2015, CNS geolocated the Yeongjeo-dong missile base using the description of the site from the North Korean defector. Allison Puccioni independently identified it for IHS Jane’s.  A lot of the images you will see in this post are older — there is a reason for that.  The North Koreans have taken care to camouflage missile sites, which means that images taken during construction, or immediately afterward, will often show the most details.

The base itself is strung along a narrow valley.  There is a headquarters area at the mouth of the valley, located at: 41.356067, 127.061008

Up the valley (41.327991, 127.094221), there are a pair of hardened “drive-through” shelters that North Korea covered with soil and then planted trees on top, presumably to disguise them. North Korea also built a concrete pad, which it then covered in dirt.  The camouflage is pretty effective.

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GoogleEarth

Nearby (41.326328, 127.096255), there are five entrances to tunnels that may be used to store missiles. These are probably the “bunkers” that a senior U.S. official described to Priest and Lippman as where North Korea “could roll them out and elevate them into a position to launch.”

There are additional tunnels for storage located at 41.333621, 127.124943.

GoogleEarth

 

3.

New Base near Hoejung-ni

As we said, Yeongjeo-ri has been well-known for twenty years.  What caught our eye, however, is that around 2010, North Korea began to construct a new facility about 7 miles away that appears to be another missile base.  This site has never been publicly disclosed as far as we know.  It has been undergoing a continuous process of expansion.

The relationship between the two sites is not clear.  It is possible that they are simply separate bases that share the advantages of Kim Hyong Jik County’s location, or perhaps one is subordinate to the other.  We lean toward the idea that the bases are separate, because each has its own Headquarters area.

Planet Labs Inc.

In many ways, the base near Hoejung-ni strongly resembles the older site at Yeongjeo-dong.  Around 2010, North Korea constructed a pair of large drive-through shelters (41.369776, 126.913196) suitable for large ballistic missiles.  These shelters are extremely well-camouflaged.  Compare the 2010 image taken in winter, which shows the outlines of the shelters, with a summer image taken in 2018.

North Korea appears to have begun to expand the base in recent years, starting with the construction of a new headquarters area in 2014. The layout of the new buildings bears a significant resemblance to the older headquarters area at Yeongjeo-dong

And, perhaps most importantly, North Korea is constructing an extremely large underground facility (41.365579, 126.927911) at the base.  Construction on this UGF seems to have begun in 2017. It remains under construction, with significant progress made in recent months.  Below are images that show the construction.

The image from 2015 is a baseline showing no construction.  Spoil from the new tunnel first appear in late 2017. (The image is from October 2017).  Construction continued throughout 2018, as demonstrated by images from this September and October.

DigitalGlobe

Coda

We have a response from South Korea.

Defense Ministry Regular Briefing

Regarding CNN’s report on Yeongjeo-dong missile base:

q. How does SK military and the intelligence evaluate the report?

JCS: I’ll speak on behalf of JCS. It is not appropriate for our military to officially acknowledge the content of a foreign media report. However, our military is continuously and closely tracking and surveilling facilities of interest and important sites in N.Korea in cooperation with the US.

q. Yeongjeo-ri, that is a missile base, yes? Yes, that’s what JCS said.

q. But it isn’t an ICBM site.

JCS: You asked whether Yeongjeo-ri is a site that is being evaluated by the military, a missile site that is being evaluated by the military. It is one of the important N.Korean sites that is being tracked and surveilled under a US-SK cooperation. It is not appropriate for me to publicly speak on its properties and assessments.

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