Movement at North Korea ICBM plant viewed as missile-related, says South Korea

Sanumdong is known as the production site of North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-15, seen as the country's first intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching US.
Sanumdong is known as the production site of North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-15, seen as the country's first intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching US.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON/SEOUL (REUTERS) - New activities have been detected at a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles plant, South Korean media said on Thursday (March 7), as US President Donald Trump said he would be very disappointed if Pyongyang rebuilt a rocket site.  

Movement of cargo vehicles were spotted recently around a factory at Sanumdong in Pyongyang, which produced North Korea’s first intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching the United States, South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo and Donga Ilbo newspapers reported, citing lawmakers briefed by the National Intelligence Service on Tuesday.

Spy chief Suh Hoon told the lawmakers he practically viewed the activity as missile-related, according to the JoongAng Ilbo.

The newspaper also quoted Suh as saying that North Korea continued to operate its uranium enrichment facility at the main Yongbyon nuclear complex after a first summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore last June.

It was the first official confirmation by South Korean authorities that North Korea has been continuing to enrich uranium, JoongAng said.

The reports came after a second summit between Trump and Kim broke down last week in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi over differences on how far North Korea was willing to limit its nuclear program and the degree of US willingness to ease sanctions.

The Sanumdong factory produced two Hwasong-15 ICBMs, North Korea’s longest-range missiles which can fly over 13,000 km (8,080 miles). After testing a new Hwasong-15 in late 2017, the country declared the completion of its “state nuclear force,” before pursuing talks with South Korea and the United States last year.  

South Korea’s presidential office and defense ministry declined to confirm the reports of activity at Sanumdong, saying they are closely monitoring North Korea’s activities in cooperation with the United States.  

There was no immediate response from the US State Department.

The news comes as two US think tanks and South Korea's Yonhap News Agency reported on Tuesday that work was underway to restore part of North Korea's Sohae Satellite Launching Station even as Trump met Kim held a second summit in Hanoi last week.

Trump said on Wednesday he would be very disappointed in Kim if reports about rebuilding at a rocket launch site in North Korea were true.

“I would be very disappointed if that were happening,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office, when asked if North Korea was breaking a promise.  

“It’s too early to see. ... It’s a very early report. We’re the ones that put it out. But I would be very, very disappointed in Chairman Kim, and I don’t think I will be, but we’ll see what happens. We’ll take a look. It’ll ultimately get solved.”

White House national security adviser John Bolton told Fox News in an interview that Trump was open to further talks with North Korea over denuclearisation.

“The president’s obviously open to talking again. We’ll see when that might be scheduled or how it might work out,” Bolton said.   

Bolton also said it was too soon to make a determination on the reports of North Korea’s missile activities. 

“We have a lot of ways of getting information,” he said.“We’re going to study the situation carefully. As the president said, it would be very, very disappointing if they were taking this direction.”

Bolton had warned on Tuesday that new sanctions could be introduced if North Korea did not scrap its weapons programme.  

Trump, eager for a big foreign policy win on North Korea that has eluded predecessors for decades, has repeatedly stressed his good relationship with Kim. But the bonhomie has failed so far to bridge the wide gap between the two sides.  

“We have a very nasty problem there. We have to solve a problem,” Trump said, while adding in apparent reference to Kim:“The relationship is good.” Imagery from Planet Labs Inc. analysed by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California showed activity at Sohae from Feb 23 up until Wednesday.

The Washington-based Stimson Center’s 38 North said its latest photos from Wednesday indicated that the rail-mounted transfer building used to move rockets at the site was now complete, cranes had been removed from the launch pad and the transfer building had been moved to the end of the pad.  

“But we don’t draw any conclusions from that besides they are restoring the facility. There is no evidence to suggest anything more than that,” Joel Wit of 38 North told Reuters.

A US government source said the work at Sohae likely began before the summit, which was preceded by a series of lower-level talks in February.


The breakdown of the Hanoi summit and Bolton’s sanctions threat have raised questions about the future of the dialogue the Trump administration has pursued with North Korea.


A 78-minute documentary aired by North Korea’s state television on late Wednesday showed a stone-faced Bolton during an expanded meeting in Hanoi, while Trump and other US participants were all smiles.  

The documentary also showed Trump and Kim shaking hands in smiles even after they ended the summit with no deal, saying the two leaders agreed to continue “constructive dialogue".

Some analysts have interpreted the work at Sohae as an attempt by North Korea to put pressure on Washington to agree to a deal rather than as a definite move to resume tests there.

The US government source, who did not want to be identified, said North Korea’s plan in rebuilding at the site could have been to conspicuously stop again as a demonstration of good faith if a summit agreement was struck, while the work would represent a sign of defiance or resolve if the meeting failed.

Democrat Ed Markey, ranking member of the Senate East Asia Subcommittee, expressed his concern about the reports, saying that Trump had held Sohae up as evidence that his approach to dealing with Kim was working.  

“North Korea’s apparent work at this launch site raises the troubling possibility that yet again Kim Jong Un is more interested in garnering concessions than conducting serious, good faith efforts to denuclearise,” the senator said.

Markey said it was imperative to restart working-level talks with North Korea as soon as possible and added that if Pyongyang were to abandon diplomacy the United States should be ready to consider additional ways to apply pressure.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday he was hopeful he would send a delegation to North Korea in he coming weeks but that he had “no commitment yet".

While North Korea’s official media lauded Kim’s Vietnam trip as “successful,” its vice foreign minister, Choe Son Hui, warned Kim “might lose his willingness to pursue a deal.”