WASHINGTON (REUTERS, AFP) - Satellite images indicate North Korea has begun dismantling key facilities at a site used to develop engines for ballistic missiles, in a first step towards fulfilling a pledge made to US President Donald Trump at a June summit, a Washington-based think tank said on Monday (July 23).
The images from July 20 showed work had been carried out at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station to dismantle a building used to assemble space-launch vehicles and a nearby rocket engine test stand used to develop liquid-fuel engines for ballistic missiles and space-launch vehicles, the 38 North think tank said.
"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," it said in a report.
Trump told a news conference after his unprecedented June 12 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that Kim had promised that a major missile engine testing site would be destroyed very soon.
Trump did not specifically identify the site, but a US official subsequently told Reuters that it was Sohae.
Sohae has been the North’s primary rocket launch site since 2012, and South Korea – whose president brokered the landmark summit between Trump and Kim – called it a step towards denuclearisation.
“It’s a better sign than doing nothing,” Nam Gwan-pyo, deputy director of the presidential national security office, told reporters. “I believe they are moving step by step towards denuclearisation,” Nam added.
But some experts cautioned against reading too much into the work described in the 38 North analysis.
Melissa Hanham, senior research associate with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, said that while dismantling the engine test site was a “good move”, it amounted to “the bare minimum” that could be done at Sohae.
“Unless they dismantle the whole site, it will remain North Korea’s premier location for space launches,” Hanham said on Twitter. “North Korea does not need the Sohae engine test stand anymore if it is confident in the engine design. As (Kim Jong Un) said himself, North Korea is moving from testing to mass production,” she said, adding that observers should look for signs of new sites where more missiles could be built.
“We ignored North Korea too long, and now it’s about managing how many nuclear weapons and delivery systems they have, not IF they have them,” she said.
A US defence official also downplayed the news, saying the Sohae site was not a priority in terms of monitoring the North’s denuclearisation efforts. “It’s not on the radar, so to speak,” the official said.
The 38 North report comes amid growing questions about North Korea’s willingness to live up to the commitments Kim made at the summit, particularly to work towards denuclearisation.
US officials have repeatedly said North Korea has committed to giving up a nuclear weapons program that now threatens the United States, but Pyongyang has offered no details as to how it might go about this.
Jenny Town, managing editor of 38 North, which is based at Washington’s Stimson Center, said the work at Sohae could be an important move to keep negotiations going.
“This could (and that’s a big could) mean that North Korea is also willing to forgo satellite launches for the time being as well as nuclear and missile tests. This distinction has derailed diplomacy in the past,” she said.
On Friday, senior US officials called on Kim to act on his promise to give up his nuclear weapons and said the world, including China and Russia, must continued to enforce sanctions on Pyongyang until he does so.
On Monday, the US State Department issued an advisory together with the departments of Treasury and Homeland Security alerting businesses to North Korea’s sanctions-evasion tactics.
It said they should “implement effective due diligence policies, procedures, and internal controls to ensure compliance with applicable legal requirements across their entire supply chains.”
In a tweet early on Monday, Trump rejected “Fake News” that he was angry because progress was not happening fast enough with North Korea.
“Wrong, very happy!” he said in the Tweet. “A Rocket has not been launched by North Korea in 9 months. Likewise, no Nuclear Tests. Japan is happy, all of Asia is happy,” he said.
A report in The Washington Post at the weekend said that in spite of positive assessments Trump has given on progress with North Korea, he has vented anger at aides over a lack of immediate progress.
Last week, Trump said there was “no rush” and “no time limit” on denuclearisation negotiations.
US Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said on Thursday it was technically possible for North Korea to eliminate its nuclear weapons programme within a year, but added that it was not likely to happen.