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Satellite Photos Show Activity At North Korean Missile Sites


Just a little over a week after President Trump and Kim Jong Un failed to reach an agreement at a summit in Hanoi, commercial satellites see signs of activity at key sites in the North. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has been tracking the images all week and joins us. Thanks very much for being with us, Geoff.


SIMON: Let's start with some of the imagery that was shared with NPR yesterday exclusively - and you, I gather - showing activity at a missile and rocket factory near Pyongyang. What do people see there?

BRUMFIEL: So these images were taken February 22 by a company called DigitalGlobe, and they're of a site called Sanumdong. This is where North Korea assembles some of its largest missiles and rockets, so missiles that could reach the U.S. and some of its space-launching rockets for satellites. Jeffrey Lewis is from the Middlebury Institute. He studies North Korea. And he's looked at these images. Here's how he describes what he sees.

JEFFREY LEWIS: There's a surprising amount of vehicle activity. And that means that people are coming to work and that materials are arriving. So that's very consistent with construction of either a missile or a rocket.

BRUMFIEL: And there's also activity at a nearby rail yard, suggesting the material is either coming or maybe a rocket has already left the facility.

SIMON: Also a second site, I understand, where the North has launched satellite-carrying rockets in the past. Activity seems to be going on there.

BRUMFIEL: That's right. So this site is called Sohae. It's on the west coast of the country. And after the first summit between Trump and Kim in June of last year, they actually started disassembling facilities at Sohae, so that was seen as a goodwill gesture. But around the time of the Hanoi summit - there's some debate about whether it's before or after the summit sort of happened - things got reassembled very quickly. Buildings were put back up. Things were bolted back in. And the latest imagery suggests Sohae may be operational.

SIMON: So, Geoff Brumfiel, what does it all mean?

BRUMFIEL: Well, I mean, it's not - it's important not to overinterpret what we're seeing. There's a possibility that these things are unconnected. You know, some of the activities from before the summit. Some of it's not. But, you know, we take it all together. It looks like we may be headed towards some sort of space launch by North Korea, the launch of a rocket into space carrying a satellite. Again, you know, we don't know when it would happen, or even if it'll happen. But that's sort of where we might be going.

SIMON: What kind of statement would a missile launch be?

BRUMFIEL: This would be a rocket launch. And I think that's a really important distinction because it actually makes a very...

SIMON: A rocket as opposed to a missile. Yeah.

BRUMFIEL: A rocket as opposed to a missile. Missile lands, a rocket keeps going up. And I think that's...

SIMON: I didn't know that until now. Thank you.

BRUMFIEL: (Laughter) I think that's an important distinction because what it would be doing is saying, hey, this is a peaceful rocket launch. We don't mean anything by it. You know, at the same time, our rocket looks a lot like a missile, as you just pointed out. And it would sort of be a reminder we still have our missiles. We haven't worked out our differences. We need to keep talking.

SIMON: How do you think the Trump administration would react?

BRUMFIEL: Well, President Trump himself was asked about this yesterday, and here's what he had to say.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Let's see what happens. But I would be very disappointed if I saw testing.

BRUMFIEL: Other administration officials have said that any sort of rocket launch, even if it's a civilian rocket launch, would be interpreted as a violation of a voluntary moratorium Kim agreed to after the first summit. So it has the potential to really raise tensions between North Korea and the U.S.

SIMON: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel, thanks very much for very good reporting.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.