By Jennifer Rizzo
While new satellite images show preparations for what is believed to be a coming long-range missile launch by North Korea, a second attempt in 2012 would be unprecedented, a top satellite image analyst told Security Clearance.
There have been four launches of this scale since 1998, including a failed attempt in April of this year. A second launch in 2012 would be the first time North Korea has launched two systems of this class, their largest missile class, in less than three years.
"The fact that they are now apparently preparing for a second launch in 2012 indicated that the decision to do this was made at the highest level," said DigitalGlobe analyst Joe Bermudez.
The North Koreans are looking for "maximum political impact" domestically, regionally and internationally with a test launch such as this, according to Bermudez, calling it a "very politically motivated event."
The timing of a launch at the end of this year would coincide with many consequential events, said Bermudez.
South Korea will be launching a rocket into space by the end of this week. North Korea and Japan will be holding another set of bilateral talks early in December and the South Korean presidential election will take place in less than a month. North Korea watchers say new leader Kim Jung Un may be responding to internal political pressure from hard-liners to send a message.
Details of a new satellite images released in the past few days, including one shot earlier this week, show increased activity at North Korea's Sohae Satellite Launch Station, suggesting a new launch could be possible in the next few weeks, according to DigitalGlobe. The United States has seen activity on the launch pad but does not believe a launch is imminent, U.S. military sources told CNN's Barbara Starr.
The newest image at North Korea's Sohae Satellite Launch Station was taken on November 26 and shows similar preparations as was witnessed ahead of the failed April 13th attempt to launch a satellite on top of a long-range missile, the DigitalGlobe analysis concludes
Trucks, people, and numerous portable fuel tanks are visible in the images. A new tent has also been erected, pointing to workers on multiple shifts.
"Because the North Korean ballistic missile and space program is small in nature, there is not a lot of normal everyday activity at these facilities, so when you see something that is different from that norm you tend to watch it with greater interest," said Bermudez.
The United States has yet to see a missile on the launch pad, said one of the sources, speaking on the condition no name be used because the source was not authorized to speak to the media about North Korea intelligence. The source added that if there was a launch, it would likely be a long-range missile such as the Taepodong-2 because the Sohae site is a long-range missile launch pad.
North Korea claims it is just trying to launch satellites into space during these tests, but the technology could be used for long-range strike capability.
"While it publicly is stating it is trying to launch a satellite for scientific reasons, we believe the underlying motivation is to develop a intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the United States," said Bermudez. "The same technology that you use to place an object into orbit is the same technology that you use for a ballistic missile."