Structures thought to be gantry footings, a flame trench and propellant buildings of a new launch pad on the coast of North Korea (AP/DigitalGlobe)
North Korea has stopped construction on a launch pad where intercontinental-range rockets could be tested, according to an analysis of new satellite imagery.
The interruption could be due to heavy rains and that could stall completion for up to two years,
Despite the setback, Pyongyang is also refurbishing for possible future use another existing pad at the same complex that has been used for past rocket launches, according to the analysis of August 29 images given to The Associated Press by 38 North, the website of the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
While the renovations do not mean a launch is imminent, they indicate North Korea is preparing the site for possible future rocket tests, according to the 38 North special report written by Nick Hansen.
North Korea conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, but experts do not believe Pyongyang has yet mastered the technology needed to shrink a nuclear weapon so it can be mounted on to the tip of a long-range missile.
There are worries, however, about North Korea's rocket and missile programmes. The United States, South Korea and others have said North Korea uses rocket launches, including a failed effort in mid-April, as covers to test banned missile systems that could target parts of the United States. North Korea says recent rocket launches were meant to put peaceful satellites into orbit.
Both the new launch pad where work has been suspended and the existing launch pad being refurbished are at the Tonghae launch complex, which houses nine facilities around the villages of Musudan, No-dong and Taepo-dong on the north-east coast, according to the report.
"Despite the temporary halt in construction at the new Tonghae launch pad and the failed test last April, the North Koreans appear determined to eventually build bigger and better rockets," Joel Wit, a former US State Department official and editor of 38 North, said.
The failed April launch of Pyongyang's new Unha-3 rocket occurred at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in Tongchang-ri, a sophisticated, newer site on the country's north-western coast.
The new commercial satellite photos of Tonghae, taken by DigitalGlobe, also show halted construction at fuel and oxidiser buildings near the new pad, the analysis said. Those buildings are described as crucial to any future tests. The exact reason for the halt is not clear, but the analysis says the rains this summer that killed dozens of people and submerged large amounts of farmland are one explanation. North Korea is particularly vulnerable to natural disasters because of its poor drainage, widespread deforestation and poor infrastructure.