From The Diplomat, Mayday:
China isn’t the only country with suspicious island construction sites.
Over the past five years, North Korea has constructed several military facilities on small islands surrounding the city of Sohae, a leading missile development and testing site. In some cases, the islands themselves were constructed; what amounted to little more than a pile of sand 20 years ago is a burgeoning military facility today. Sohae, a sizeable metropolis on the country’s west coast, has hosted many critical missile tests, including the 2012 and 2016 Kwangmyŏngsŏng satellite launches. It is the prime research and development hub for key intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) technology. Sohae is expected to host more missile tests in the coming years as North Korea focuses its efforts on ICBM development.
North Korea has built at least five military facilities on islands near Sohae. The islands identified in the infographics below are not uniform in size or geological structure, and their military facilities are not identical to one another. Their missions may likewise be individually distinct. Some of the new facilities may not even be primarily served by Sohae’s military facilities, but by other nearby bases. We have dubbed them the “Sohae islands” because Sohae is the most significant political-military structure nearby.
The mission of these new island bases is not obvious. Available geospatial intelligence doesn’t align neatly with a basic strategic analysis. Some of the islands look like offensive asset deployment sites — that is, ballistic missile launch pads — but building Transporter Erector Launcher pads on these islands would not be strategically wise. Anti-air missile sites would be a strategically wiser choice, but the available imagery lacks some of the evidence traditionally indicative of such deployments. Missile silos are a distinct plausibility, and one that would make a fair amount of sense. However, it is exceedingly difficult to ascertain the structure, size, and nature of these islands from the available imagery. Whether they could structurally support a missile silo is unclear.
TELs, SAMs, and Other Assorted Acronyms
As Sohae’s target value rises, that the North Korean military may be dispersing its assets into nearby facilities. Firing exclusively from Sohae’s resident Tongch’ang-ri Launch Facility during wartime would be a dangerously predictable, amateurish mistake. But constructing island launch sites would buck the common and cost-effective practice of building remote TEL pads hidden between mountains. If North Korea intends to use these islands as offensive sites, then it has found an awfully expensive way to reap only marginal strategic benefits.
Turn your attention to the paved, rectangular lots shown on Islands A, C, and E in the above image. These empty lots could plausibly accommodate a North Korean ballistic missile and the Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL) it rode in on. These TELs — those vehicles so frequently touted in North Korean military parades, ballistic missiles stacked neatly on top — could disperse from their shelters and onto these various islands during times of heightened tension.
Though most of the islands in the attached infographic resemble facilities designed to host missile launchers, the evidence is not definitive. The wide roads leading on and off the pads at Islands A and C could allow for rapid shooting-and-scooting. But Island E’s single road looks rather inconvenient for a wheeled TEL. (Notably, some newer North Korean missiles such as the Pukguksong-2 use tracked, rather than wheeled, Transporter Erector Launchers.) Additionally, the nearby military structures on these islands do not appear to be protected by a blast shield of any sort, and swaths of heat-resistant cement are not always visible. However, the latest available imagery is from December 2016; these construction projects could have been completed in the intervening time. The geospatial evidence is decidedly mixed. If the islands are intended to eventually host ballistic missiles, then North Korea made an oddly poor decision....MUCH MORE