The stands they are a changin’

Studying North Korea’s ballistic missile program with satellite imagery requires knowing what type of activities to look for, identifying the locations related to missile development and testing, and monitoring those sites to track changes or activities as they happen.  When it comes to conducting static or ground tests of propulsion systems for ballistic missiles, there four locations described in the open literature: test stands for liquid propellant rocket  engines (Chamjin, Sohae/Tonchang-ri, and Tonghae/Musudan-ri), and a pair of test stands for solid rocket motors at Magun-po. 

North Korea’s static test stands at Sohae, Chamjin and Magun-po. Not pictured: the test stand at Musudan-ri or the inverted vertical solid fuel test stand at Magun-po.

These  test stands play an important role in the development of  North Korea’s missile and space launch capabilities. Static  engine  tests  are necessary for the development of the new systems,  which means analysts track activity at these locations to identify new missiles under development.  This is also why the United States sought, as the one tangible outcome of the Singapore Summit, for North Korea to dismantle the large engine test stand at Sohae.

The absence of frequently observable testing signatures at these sites has raised many questions for some analysts in the field as the expansion of the North’s missile program hasn’t been reflected in open-source reporting on ground testing.  This information gap can, and likely is, due to infrequent data over these sites and efforts by the North to conceal their testing signatures.  With this in mind, another possible option is that the open-source community has yet to identify all of the missile test stands across the country.

Recently I was reviewing missile production related sites and stumbled upon a very unique structure which may be another, yet to be identified, engine test stand at the January 18th Factory, a site which reportedly produces rocket engines according to information from South Korea and a defector testimony.  

The January 18th Machine Plant, just south of Kaechon, is well known to North Korea watchers as a factory with an extensive manufacturing capacity, having a large underground production wing (often shown during leadership visits), and extensive quality-of-life facilities for those employed there. It’s connection to the North’s missile program came to the open-source community by way of the South Korean Ministry of Unification and a defector testimony which stated that the factory produces engines for (fuel unspecified) missiles, in addition to munitions, torpedoes, and tanks. In the adjacent valley of the factory exists two jet engine test cells which implies they probably work on jet engines as well. 

The suspected test stand is a relatively new addition. Around the end of 2014, near the end of a valley on the grounds of the facility, a foundation for an unidentified structure started to appear. While there is a large gap in publicly accessible imagery covering this site, by 2017 this structure appeared not only to have been completed, but also had what appears to be visible scorch marks on a concrete exhaust deflector, indicating use.

If this is a missile engine or motor test stand, it would be rather unique in North Korea considering all of their known liquid fuel test stands are vertical and the one horizontal motor test stand in Mangun-Po uses a long flame trench vs. this upward deflection method. This exhaust deflection design for horizontal test stands however is not necessarily unique to North Korea as a similar design is used at the German Aerospace Center’s test facility in Lampoldshausen (49.285281°, 9.376666°) which also boasts a variety of other test stand designs. 

Another unique feature of this suspected test stand would be its relative compactness, which would partially conceal the flash of an engine or motor test under the structure with only the very end of the exhaust being visible as it contours upwards over the angled deflector. The fuel type for this test stand also remains a bit of a mystery.  Due to its distance from the North’s solid fuel production facilities near Hamhung, I would be inclined to speculate that the site is used for liquid propellant engines.

  All of the North’s publicly identified liquid fuel test stands are vertical, but horizontal liquid fuel test stands can and are used by private space launch companies for a varying range of engine sizes. An interesting example for horizontal liquid fuel engine testing can be seen being used by a California based launch company called Astra, which uses a converted jet engine test cell for testing their liquid rocket engines. This also raises questions about the North being capable of doing the same in the collocated test cells in the adjacent valley, however this analysis has yet to be done. Because of the compactness of the structure and its exhaust deflector I feel inclined to believe it is likely used for smaller engines, which would fit a gap in the open-sources knowledge of where North Korea tests engines used for directional assistance like the vernier thrusters on the Hwasong-12 and 14, or early designs for things we have yet to see.  

We don’t have any ground photos or videos of the suspected test stand, but this is to be expected; North Korea has been selective about showing off activity at its test stands as we still have yet to see images of the vertical solid fuel test stand at Magun-po or the liquid test stand at Tonghae. However if this is a missile engine or motor test stand, it might explain the lack of observable testing signatures as it has gone without notice in the public realm since its construction in 2014, and raises once again the question of how much we know about the North’s missile testing infrastructure.