New satellite photos suggest construction work has been halted for the last eight months at a key North Korean launch site intended to test bigger and more advanced rockets.
The 38 North
research institute says North Korea had been making rapid progress on building a launch pad, control center, and missile assembly building at the Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground on the northeast coast.
This May 26, 2013 satellite image taken by Astrium, and annotated and distributed by 38 North shows an unfinished new launch pad, center, at the Tonghae facility in North Korea. (AP Photo/Astrium - 38 North)
Commercial satellite images taken late last year showed that construction mysteriously stopped. The U.S.-based institute initially said the projects may have been temporarily stopped due to heavy rains and typhoons.
But it said Tuesday the latest imagery shows that work has still not resumed, as of late May. The photos even appear to show grass growing inside the foundation of the missile assembly building.
38 North says the stoppage may indicate the North has decided to slow or even halt development of larger rockets. Or, it said Pyongyang may have decided testing could take place at the newer Sohae Satellite Launching Station.
In December, North Korea successfully sent what it said was a weather satellite into space using a Unha-3 rocket that was launched from the Sohae facility, which is also known as Tonchang-ri.
The United States and others condemned the move as a disguised long-range missile test that North Korea is banned from conducting under United Nations sanctions on its nuclear weapons program.
Many fear the successful orbital space launch, which followed many unsuccessful attempts, was a breakthrough in the North's stated goal of being able to deliver an intercontinental ballistic missile to the U.S. mainland.
North Korea has also said advances in its rocket technology are necessary in order to help develop the country's economy and technology industry, a notion that analysts have questioned.
The December rocket launch, as well as North Korea's third nuclear test in February, set in motion a series of events that led to heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula.
Those tensions, which included threats of nuclear war by the North, have since died down, and North Korea has offered to engage in talks with Washington. But Pyongyang has given no sign it is willing to make concessions on its weapons program.
38 North said the reason for the construction stoppage at Tonghae remains unclear. But it said if work resumes now, the facility may not be complete until 2017 - at least a year behind an estimate of the North's original schedule.