ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
New photographs suggest North Korea is preparing to launch a missile or space rocket. This comes just more than a week after President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walked away from their nuclear summit with no agreement. NPR has been shown commercial satellite imagery of renewed activity at a facility where North Korea has assembled ICBMs and satellite rockets in the past, and this activity is at a different site from the one we've been discussing the last few days.
Science and security correspondent Geoff Brumfiel broke this story and joins us now in the studio. Hi, Geoff.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hi there.
SHAPIRO: You've seen these photos. When were they taken, and what did they show?
BRUMFIEL: These photos were taken on February 22 by a company called DigitalGlobe. And analysis from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies shows that basically what we're seeing is vehicle activity and activity at a nearby railyard that is consistent with the preparation of a missile or rocket - we're not quite sure which - at this facility. And the missile or a rocket may have indeed already left. It may still be under assembly. Again, we're not quite sure. But this is consistent with activity for preparing either an intercontinental ballistic missile or a space launch.
SHAPIRO: You've got those photos right in front of you. They're also posted online at npr.org. It was just days ago that another North Korean missile site appeared to have new activity. What's happening at that site, and how does it fit in with today's news?
BRUMFIEL: So that site's actually called the Sohae Satellite Launch Facility, and it basically is a site that North Korea has used in the past to launch satellites. Now, after Trump and Kim's first summit in June of last year, that site was partially disassembled as a goodwill gesture, and then sometime around the time of the Hanoi summit, everything was put together very, very quickly. And in fact, imagery from earlier this week showed the site is apparently completely reassembled now and may even be operational.
So these two things together suggest that we may be looking at a possible upcoming space launch, not a missile launch. North Korea has been talking about launching some satellites, and so that might be what they're intending to do.
SHAPIRO: Often it's impossible to know exactly what's happening in North Korea or what the intentions of the North Koreans might be, but can you try to put this activity into context for us? What does this mean?
BRUMFIEL: Sure. I mean, we don't have a lot of great on-the-ground intelligence in North Korea, and we really rely on satellite images, especially outside of the government, for making any sort of guesses, and the North Koreans know that. They use these moves to signal to the U.S. and to other countries that they're, you know, thinking this way or that. I think a satellite launch is kind of an interesting signal, if that's where we're headed. It looks in many ways like a missile launch, yet the North Koreans can claim it's peaceful. I think it would be seen as provocative. Yesterday, a senior State Department official said it would be seen as sort of backsliding in terms of the goodwill that Trump and Kim have built.
SHAPIRO: So maybe a reason to worry but not an explicit immediate threat - is that the assessment?
BRUMFIEL: Absolutely, yeah. This is not a threat. And we don't even know when this launch could happen. It could be days. It could be weeks or months. There's a big national holiday next month in North Korea, and that may be a time they choose to launch a satellite. And of course it may be there's no launch at all, that they're just doing some work at the facility. There's no way to tell right now. But nonetheless, it does seem to be a further indication that the two sides are moving further apart post-Hanoi summit.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR science and security correspondent Geoff Brumfiel, who broke this story of renewed activity at a North Korean missile assembly site. Thank you, Geoff.
BRUMFIEL: Thank you.
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