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(LEAD) N. Korea completes upgrade of rocket site, shows no signs of launch preparations yet

All Headlines 11:26 July 29, 2015

(ATTN: RECASTS dateline, lead; ADDS more info in paras 10-11)
By Chang Jae-soon

WASHINGTON/SEOUL, July 29 (Yonhap) -- North Korea has completed construction to upgrade its main rocket launch facility, but is still showing no signs of preparations to launch a long-range rocket or missile from the facility, a U.S. research institute said Wednesday.

The website 38 North made the assessment citing recent satellite imagery of the North's Sohae Satellite Launching Station. South Korean officials said last week the North completed upgrading the facility to enable it to handle bigger rockets, and a launch could come around the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers' Party in October.

"There are still no indications at Sohae that test preparations are underway to support a long-range SLV (satellite launch vehicle) launch. There is also no public evidence to suggest that a decision has been made by the leadership in Pyongyang to move forward with a launch," 38 North said in a report.

"In the coming weeks, if preparations are indeed underway, we would expect to see other on-the ground indications at Sohae, including increased rail activity and the possible arrival of missile related railcars, activity at facilities associated with rocket assembly," it said.

38 North said the North has completed all construction work at the facility

"It appears that the SLV stages and payload can be prepared horizontally in a new launch support building at the end of the pad, then transferred to a movable support structure that is several stories high, where they will be erected vertically, checked out and finally moved to the launch tower," the report said.

Imagery of the facility's engine test stand also showed that preparations were underway, as of July 21, for "an engine test in the near-term," including the presence of a movable crane and probable ground support equipment, the report said.

Also Tuesday, a North Korean diplomat left open the possibility of a rocket launch.

When asked about the possibility of the North conducting a launch around October, the country's deputy chief of mission to the United Nations, Amb. Jang Il-hun, said he does not "rule out any possibility of doing one of these things," according to a news report.

The Unification Ministry said that the government is closely monitoring the situation related to the North's possible provocation in October.

"The Seoul government and the military are keeping close tabs on the possibility of the North's provocative acts. We are ready to take proper actions (if the North makes provocations)," Jeong Joon-hee, the ministry spokesman, told a press briefing.

North Korea is believed to have developed advanced ballistic missile technologies through a series of test launches, including a 2012 launch that succeeded in putting a satellite into orbit. That test is considered the most successful so far.

That test sparked fears that the North has moved closer to ultimately developing nuclear-tipped missiles that could potentially reach the mainland U.S. The country has so far conducted three underground nuclear tests: in 2006, 2009 and 2013.


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