No sign of imminent North Korea missile launch, says South Korean defence chief

South Korean people watch a television broadcast at Seoul Station in Seoul on March 7, 2019. South Korea's spy agency said on March 5 that it detected signs of the North restoring part of the Sohae satellite launch facility near its border with China
South Korean people watch a television broadcast at Seoul Station in Seoul on March 7, 2019. South Korea's spy agency said on March 5 that it detected signs of the North restoring part of the Sohae satellite launch facility near its border with China, also known as the Dongchang-ri missile base.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL (REUTERS) - It is too soon to tell if recent activity at some of North Korea's rocket facilities is preparation for a missile launch, South Korea's defence minister told a parliamentary hearing on Monday (March 18).

Earlier this month, several American think tanks and South Korean officials reported that satellite imagery showed possible preparations for a launch from the Sohae rocket launch site at Tongchang-ri, North Korea, which has been used in the past to launch satellites but not intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.

"It's hasty to call it missile-related activity," Defence Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo told a parliamentary defence committee. "Tongchang-ri is a launch site but we don't see any activity being carried out for a missile launch."

When asked if he could confirm whether Sohae was functionally restored, Mr Jeong said it was inappropriate for intelligence authorities to comment on every media report one way or the other.

He also said there were signs of continued nuclear activity in North Korea, without elaborating.

Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon told a separate parliamentary panel that it was possible that the recent developments at the missile site were to bolster North Korea's leverage in negotiations.

"But given North Korea's continued work, thorough analysis is needed to find out its exact intentions," Mr Cho said.

 
 
 

Last Friday, North Korean Vice-Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui told foreign diplomats and journalists in Pyongyang that leader Kim Jong Un was considering suspending talks with the United States and may rethink a freeze on missile and nuclear tests unless the US made concessions.

The activity at Sohae appeared to begin shortly before US President Donald Trump met Mr Kim at a summit in Hanoi late last month.

The summit broke down over differences about US demands for North Korea to denuclearise and its demand for dramatic relief from international sanctions imposed for its nuclear and missile tests, which it pursued for years in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions.

Mr Trump said after his first summit with Mr Kim in Singapore last June that the latter had promised to dismantle the Sohae test site, a pledge the North Korean leader reiterated and expanded on at a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in September.

North Korea has used Sohae to launch satellites into space since 2011, and the US says its work there has helped develop missile technology.

A satellite launch in April 2012 killed off an Obama administration deal for a freeze in North Korean nuclear and missile testing reached weeks earlier.

Last Wednesday, 38 North, a group that monitors North Korea, reported that there had been no new activity at Sohae since March 8.

Last Friday, the group reported that satellite imagery showed no activity at North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear reactor complex or at dismantled facilities at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site.