Rebuilding at North's rocket site almost complete: Seoul

Work at Sohae site started before Hanoi summit, says lawmaker

SEOUL • North Korea has almost completed rebuilding a long-range rocket site it had promised to close, South Korea lawmakers told reporters yesterday after a closed-door meeting with the country's intelligence officials.

The claim comes a month after a second summit between United States President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ended without an agreement, deepening a gap between the two countries on how to achieve "complete denuclearisation".

Shortly after the end of the Hanoi summit in February, a series of satellite images emerged suggesting increased activity at the North's Sohae rocket site, triggering international alarm that the nuclear-armed state might be preparing a long-range or space launch.

"The North began rebuilding the centre, which was partly dismantled last July, before the North-US summit in February," lawmaker Kim Min-ki said after the National Intelligence Service briefing.

"The work is almost complete, with some maintenance activity being underway," he said.

North Korea has been banned by the United Nations Security Council from carrying out space launches, as some of its technology is similar to that used for intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs.

But, earlier this month, the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies said there was "deliberate and purposeful" activity going on at the Sohae rocket site.

Yesterday's latest assessment by Seoul could suggest a reversal in policy by Mr Kim, who agreed to shut the Sohae site at a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Pyongyang last year.

Experts have warned that a launch of any kind would send the stuttering talks on denuclearisation into disarray.

Mr Moon Chung-in, the South's presidential special adviser on national security, said the outcome would be "catastrophic".

The nuclear-armed state is also "operating uranium enrichment facilities" at its Yongbyon nuclear complex, the lawmaker added.

In the aftermath of the Hanoi summit, Pyongyang and Washington have both sought to blame the other side's intransigence for the deadlock.

Pyongyang said it had proposed dismantling the Yongbyon complex - a sprawling site covering multiple different facilities - in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions that have strangled and isolated the North.

But US officials have said it was not clear exactly which facilities at the Yongbyon complex the North was willing to give up, while Mr Trump has said "the weapons themselves need to be on the table".

President Moon will meet Mr Trump next month in a bid to get the nuclear talks back on track after the breakdown in discussions that he helped broker led to a slip in support for him at home.

Mr Moon, a long-time advocate of reconciliation with North Korea, will meet Mr Trump at the White House on April 11, one of his spokesmen said yesterday.

It will be Mr Moon's first meeting with Mr Trump since the US President abruptly halted his summit with Mr Kim on Feb 28, setting back diplomacy to end Pyongyang's atomic ambitions.

About a month after the collapse of the summit, Mr Moon's presidential approval rating has hit a record low of 43 per cent, according to a Gallup Korea poll released yesterday.

Mr Moon and Mr Trump will "thoroughly discuss how to cooperate for permanent peace in the Korean peninsula through denuclearisation," presidential spokesman Yoon Do-han said in Seoul.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 30, 2019, with the headline 'Rebuilding at North's rocket site almost complete: Seoul'. Print Edition | Subscribe