By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 16, 2011; 8:42 AM
TOKYO - The latest satellite imagery indicates that North Korea has completed construction of a second - and more modern - missile launch facility, a vital step in its efforts to successfully launch intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The images, first obtained by VOA News, indicate an expansive launch pad positioned next to a launch tower that stands more than 100 feet tall. Though analysts have known about the facility's construction for at least two years, the site's apparent completion - in spite of scarce domestic resources and international sanctions - suggests that long-range missile development remains a top priority in Pyongyang.
For previous missile launches, nuclear-armed North Korea has used a smaller launch facility in the northeastern part of the country. The new facility, built in the northwest, is close to China's border, and could be less susceptible to a military strike, analysts said.
"This is more like a real facility," said Dan Pinkston, a Seoul-based security expert who has studied the satellite images. "The other one, it had dirt roads; it was pretty primitive. This one looks to be more of a serious site with support facilities that are needed to sustain a program - what you'd want to do if you are serious about testing long-range missiles."
Last month, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates warned that North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile program was becoming a "direct threat" to the United States.
Within five years, Gates said, "I think that North Korea will have developed an intercontinental ballistic missile.. . . Not that they will have huge numbers or anything like that, but they will have - I believe they will have a very limited capability."
Pyongyang still is many steps away from being able to mount a nuclear warhead on a long-range missile and send it across the Pacific. A missile test in 2006 fizzled after just 42 seconds. North Korea conducted a subsequent, more successful missile test in 2009 - but that test failed to launch a satellite, which was its stated goal.
Arms control researchers believe that North Korea used Chinese and Soviet technology to build its missile capabilities. But for years now, North Korea, according to the CIA, also has been an exporter of missile technology - and it relies on those sales as a major source of income for its cash-strapped country.
If North Korea tests a long-range missile or attempts another satellite launch, it will likely draw fierce rebuke from an international community that hasn't yet figured out a way to restrain Pyongyang's aggressions.
But such tests could also be used as a showpiece for leader Kim Jong Il, whose propaganda machine often emphasizes the importance of technology and science developments.
North Korea has not acknowledged the construction of this latest missile facility. News of its completion emerged at the same time that a major South Korean newspaper reported that Kim's youngest son, heir apparent Kim Jong Eun, has received a key position on the powerful National Defense Commission.
Citing an unnamed source, the Chosun Ilbo said that Kim Jong Eun had been named vice chairman of the commission, officially making him the second most-powerful leader in the country. The commission has direct authority over North Korea's 1.2-million member military.
Kim Jong Eun received several other top positions last fall, when he was publicly introduced to the nation as the heir apparent. During that landmark meeting of the country's top Communist party members, the younger Kim was given the rank of a four-star general and named vice chairman of the Central Military Commission.
Wednesday was the elder Kim's 69th birthday, which was celebrated in North Korea as a national holiday.