WASHINGTON • Satellite images indicate that 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 United States President Donald Trump at a summit last month, a Washington-based think-tank has said.
The images from last Friday 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 on Monday.
"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.
Mr Trump told a news conference after his unprecedented June 12 summit in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that Mr Kim had promised a major missile engine testing site would be destroyed very soon. Mr 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 Trump-Kim summit - called it a step towards denuclearisation.
"It is a better sign than doing nothing," Mr Nam Gwan-pyo, deputy director of the presidential national security office, told reporters. "I believe they are moving step by step towards denuclearisation."
But some experts cautioned against reading too much into the work described in the 38 North analysis. Ms Melissa Hanham, senior research associate with the James Martin Centre 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," she said on Twitter.
"North Korea does not need the Sohae engine test stand anymore if it is confident in the engine design. As (Mr Kim) 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 is about managing how many nuclear weapons and delivery systems they have, not if they have them."
A US defence official also downplayed the news, saying that the Sohae site was not a priority in terms of monitoring the North's denuclearisation efforts. "It is 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 Mr Kim made at the summit, particularly to work towards denuclearisation.
US officials have repeatedly said the North has committed to giving up a nuclear weapons programme that now threatens the US, but Pyongyang has offered no details as to how it might go about this.
Ms Jenny Town, managing editor of 38 North, said the work at Sohae could be an important move to keep negotiations going. "This could (and that is 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.
In a tweet early on Monday, Mr 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 nine months. Likewise, no nuclear tests. Japan is happy, all of Asia is happy."
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE