Preparations for a new North Korean rocket launch appear to be underway at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station located on its west coast. Based on DigitalGlobe satellite imagery released on November 23 and 26, trailers carrying the first two stages of an Unha (also referred to as the Taepodong-2) rocket were spotted parked near the main missile assembly building, a clear indicator that the rocket stages are being checked out before moving to the pad for an eventual launch.
Other launch-related activities are ongoing. Empty tanks spotted at four locations indicate that the propellant buildings at the pad have likely been filled in preparation for the fueling of the rocket. The instrumentation site for monitoring a launch is still incomplete—one temporary building with a possible antenna has been established at the site, but instrumentation trailers are still parked near the assembly building. There is increased activity at buildings used to house VIPs in the past, including construction of temporary covered parking structures. Additionally, major improvements have been made to the observation building and grounds.
Exactly why Pyongyang is moving towards firing a long-range rocket at this time of year, contrary to past practice when launches typically occurred in spring or summer, remains unclear. Speculation has focused on North-South competition prompted by the South Korean satellite launch that was planned for November 29. If Pyongyang follows past practice in preparing for a launch, it could be ready to fire a rocket as early as the end of the first week in December. However, past practice has also been to announce dates and hours for sea or air closure areas for the rocket’s first and second stage impact areas, and to file for a frequency plan for a satellite in advance. Since that has not happened yet, the window would appear to be closing for an early launch.