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North Korea apparently rebuilding Sohae long-range rocket launch site at Tongchang-ri

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Seoul, South Korea -- North Korea is restoring facilities at a long-range rocket launch site that it dismantled last year as part of disarmament steps, according to foreign experts and a South Korean lawmaker who was briefed by Seoul's spy service. The finding follows a high-stakes nuclear summit last week between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump that ended without any agreement.

South Korea's National Intelligence Service provided the assessment about the North's Tongchang-ri launch site to lawmakers during a private briefing Tuesday. North Korea didn't immediately respond in its state media.

An article from 38 North, a website specializing in North Korea studies, cited commercial satellite imagery as indicating that efforts to rebuild some structures at the site, also known as the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, started sometime between Feb. 16 and March 2.

Dismantling parts of its long-range rocket launch facility was among several steps the North took last year as it entered nuclear talks with the United States and South Korea. North Korea has carried out satellite launches at the site in recent years, resulting in U.N. sanctions over expert claims that they were disguised tests of banned missile technology.

Commercial satellite image shows North Korea's Sohae Satellite Launching Station
A commercial satellite image taken over Tongchang-ri, North Korea on March 2, 2019 and released March 5, 2019 shows apparent rebuilding work at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station launch pad, according to researchers of Beyond Parallel, a CSIS project HANDOUT/REUTERS

It wasn't immediately clear how the report might affect nuclear diplomacy. The Trump-Kim summit fell apart because of differences over how much sanction relief North Korea could win in return for closing its aging main nuclear complex. The U.S. and North Korea accused each other of causing the summit breakdown, but both sides left the door open for future negotiations.

South Korea and the U.S. announced just days after the summit that they were ending their massive springtime military drills as part of efforts to support the ongoing diplomacy with North Korea -- a decision that was likely to raise worries about how the allies would maintain their readiness in the event that military tensions erupt again after a year of diplomacy. 

If Kim does announce that long-range missile tests are resuming at Sohae, he would have to justify the move to his own domestic audience. When he announced the closure of the launch site he framed it as part of a broad shift in his regime's priorities -- away from nuclear and missile development, which he claimed had essentially reached the desired level, and toward an "everything for the economy" approach.

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One analyst with extensive knowledge of North Korea's nuclear and missile programs told CBS News that if North Korea does reinstate the Sohae facility to launch a satellite using one of its old rockets, it wouldn't actually do much to advance the regime's intercontinental ballistic missile program. If they test a new rocket to put a satellite into space, however, that could significantly alter the negotiations with South Korea and the U.S.

One of the South Korean lawmakers who attended the briefing said Wednesday that NIS director Suh Hoon said the structures being restored at the launch site include roofs and building doors.

The lawmaker requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information.

He quoted Suh as saying that the move could be preparation to restart long-range rocket launches if nuclear diplomacy completely collapses, or could be an attempt to add structures that could be dramatically blown up in a show of denuclearization commitment when U.S. inspectors visit if negotiations with Washington go well.

The NIS said it couldn't confirm the report on Suh's briefing.

The 38 North report published Tuesday said the rail-mounted processing building, which is where space launch vehicles are worked on before they're moved to the launch pad, is being reassembled. It said two support cranes could be seen at the building, and walls have been erected and a new roof added.

North Korea, missile
A North Korean soldier stands in front of the country's Unha-3 rocket, at the Sohae launching site in Tongchang-ri, North Korea, in an April 8, 2012 file photo. AP

At the engine test stand, the website said it appears that the engine support structure was being reassembled. It said new roofs had been installed on the fuel and oxidizer buildings.

The report was written by Jack Liu and Jenny Town.

Beyond Parallel, a website run by the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, issued a similar assessment of the Tongchang-ri site. It said satellite imagery taken Saturday, two days after the failed summit, showed North Korea "is pursuing a rapid rebuilding" of the rocket site.

After repeated failures, North Korea successfully put a satellite into orbit for the first time in 2012 in a launch from the site, North Korea had another successful satellite launch in 2016.

North Korea has said its satellite launches are part of its peaceful space development program. None of the country's high-profile missile tests, including three ICBM launches in 2017, was conducted at the site.

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But many outside experts say ballistic missiles and rockets used in satellite launches share similar bodies, engines and other technology. They say each of the North's satellite launches was believed to have improved its missile technology.

After carrying out the third of its three ICBM launches in late 2017, North Korea claimed to be able to attack the mainland United States with nuclear-armed missiles. Foreign missile experts say the North still needs to master a few remaining technologies, such as perfecting a re-entry vehicle, to have functioning ICBMs.

In early 2018, North Korea abruptly expressed its intention to deal away its weapons arsenal in return for political and economic benefits. The North has since suspended nuclear and missile tests and dismantled its underground nuclear testing site.

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