North Korea finished building an intercontinental ballistic missile test site in Tongchang-ri, North Pyongan Province late last year, sources claimed Thursday. The facility is five times as large as the Taepodong missile test site in Musudan-ri, North Hamgyong Province and its launch pad 1.5 times as big.
The tower is 50 m high to Musudan-ri's 32 m, meaning it is tall enough to launch a space rocket of over 40 m.
A South Korean government source said the North completed the launch pad, control center and various prefab buildings late last year. "It's a modern complex operating its launch pad much like Kennedy Space Center in Florida," the source added.
He claimed its missiles are to be assembled at a nearby building and moved on to the launch pad by rail. At the Musudan-ri facility, missiles are hoisted on to the launch pad with a crane and then fitted with the first, second and third-stage booster rockets.
An expert with a government-funded agency said, "The Tongchang-ri facility is better than the Musudan-ri base because it's easily capable of launching big missiles or rockets and is unaffected by bad weather when missiles are assembled."
It is also said to have an underground storage room for liquid fuel as well as a fuel supply system that can inject liquid fuel into missiles while avoiding satellite surveillance.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned last December that the North could acquire ICBMs within five years that would directly threaten the U.S. mainland, and U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on Thursday said the North has successfully tested many related technologies.
South Korean officials believe the North began construction at the Tongchang-ri base in 2002. The Musudan-ri facility was built in 1992.
There are several good reasons for building the site in Tongchang-ri, intelligence agencies believe. It is less easy for South Korea and the U.S. to carry out air strikes because it is relatively close to China; the manpower and time needed to install nuclear warheads on missiles if it succeeds in developing them would be reduced, since the base is only about 70 km from the Yongbyon nuclear facility; and it is close to the Sanum-dong long-range missile development center in Pyongyang.
In addition, a missile launched from the base may be easier to trace with the North's own radar tracking system, and it could fire missiles southward through the open sea.
Sources speculate that the North could launch an adapted Taepodong-2 missile with a range of 6,700 km from the Tongchang-ri test facility this year.
The launch of a Taepodong-2 missile from Musudan-ri in April 2009 failed when the rocket fizzled shortly after takeoff. Afterwards, another missile was reportedly taken by train to Tongchang-ri. The North is reportedly carrying out engine combustion tests.