North Korean Missile Launch Tower Nearly Complete, Satellites Show

New satellite images show the structure appears near completion, but could it hold an ICBM? By Rachel Oswald

North Korea appears to be almost done building a launch tower tall enough to handle firing rockets even larger than one successfully launched in 2012.

The construction progress could have implications for the isolated nation's ability to test potential long-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear payloads, though North Korea is not known to have mastered the technology to do so.

"Recent commercial satellite imagery indicates that North Korea is nearing completion of modifications to the gantry at the launch pad of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station," said image expert Nick Hansen in a Thursday analysis posted on the specialist website "38 North." Sohae is also known as the Dongchang-ri missile launch complex.

An 11th level can now be seen in the images, which gives the tower enough height to allow firing rockets as tall as 50 meters, which would be nearly 70 percent longer than the space rocket North Korea successfully launched in December 2012, according to Hansen.

He projected the alterations to the Dongchang-ri launch platform could be wrapped up next month or in April if construction continues apace.

"The pad will then be available for additional launches, probably of the Unha 3 rocket or a slightly longer variant, such as the Unha 9, which was first displayed as a model in 2012," he wrote.

While North Korea claims its past launches of the Unha 3 space vehicle have been peaceful, much of the world views them as a likely cover for tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles.