Views mixed, analysts cautious on report of North Korea dismantling missile site

Trump speaking at the 119th Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - In a speech at an event in Missouri on Tuesday (July 24) for veterans of America's foreign wars, President Donald Trump, mentioning reports of North Korea's dismantling of a "missile site", said "We appreciate that."

And he quoted North Korean chairman Kim Jong Un's personal response, "It will be done," to his request for the return of more remains of Americans killed during the Korean War.

There are mixed views of the significance of the reported dismantling, highlighting the lack of information available on the structure and mechanics of any agreements made between the US and North Korea. North Korea has at least publicly, avoided mention of denuclearisation.

Also, while the return of around 50 sets of remains believed to be those of American soldiers killed in the war, was seen as a relatively easy gesture for North Korea to maintain some momentum post the July 12 Trump-Kim summit in Singapore, the handover appears to be delayed.

Separately - at a press conference in Palo Alto, California alongside Defence Secretary James Mattis and their Australian counterparts foreign minister Julie Bishop and defence minister Marise Payne - US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said dismantling the missile site would be "entirely consistent with the commitment that Chairman Kim made to President Trump when the two of them were in Singapore together".

"He made that commitment to them orally," he said. "We've been pressing for there to be inspectors on the ground when that engine test facility is dismantled consistent with Chairman Kim's commitment."

He added : "They need to completely, fully denuclearise. That's the steps that Chairman Kim committed to, and that the world has demanded through UN Security Council resolutions. It's that straightforward."

A July 23 report on the website 38 North, said: "In an important first step towards fulfilling a commitment made by Kim Jong Un at the June 12 Singapore Summit, new commercial satellite imagery of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station (North Korea's main satellite launch facility since 2012) indicates that the North has begun dismantling key facilities."

"Since these facilities are believed to have played an important role in the development of technologies for the North's intercontinental ballistic missile programme, these efforts represent a significant confidence building measure on the part of North Korea," the report said.

But, speaking to The Straits Times, professor Lee Sung Yoon, professor of Korean Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, said: "North Korea has shown it can shoot off solid fuel-propelled ballistic missiles from mobile launchers, as well as previously undisclosed launch sites near Pyongyang.

"Most of all, retiring an old nuclear site or missile launch pad has absolutely no relevance to the cold reality that North Korea owns an operational nuclear weapons and ballistic missile arsenal whose capabilities continue to grow."

Dr Balbina Hwang, visiting professor at Georgetown University, called the dismantlement only "partially significant."

"This is just the bare minimum to keep the Singapore deal and the inter-Korean process alive politically, but has absolutely no material significance/impact on the denuclearisation process," she said.

"Unfortunately, this one action doesn't reduce North Korea's threat capabilities overall, nor does it necessarily indicate or confirm that Kim Jong Un has abandoned North Korea's strategic ambition to pursue weapons of mass destruction programmes," she added.

On Monday, Ms Rebecca Hersman, a former deputy assistant secretary of defence for countering weapons of mass destruction, said at a panel on denuclearisation of North Korea: "Unless and until North Korea comes to the conclusion for itself that possessing nuclear weapons is more dangerous to its security than eliminating them… the best we can hope for is risk reduction."

"I simply don't believe North Korea has made this choice" she said at the panel at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), where she is an adviser to the think-tank's International Security Programme.

The "worst thing," she cautioned, would be that, "under pressure for a win, or an ability to declare victory at a political level, some may be tempted to shrink the problem to fit the time available or to portray concessions as far more impactful than they really are."

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