Asia Pacific | ANALYSIS

North Korea's apparent dismantling of key missile test site injects fresh momentum into denuclearization talks

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

Work by North Korea to dismantle a key testing facility for its missile engines and rocket launches could pave the way toward more intensive talks on a peace regime between Pyongyang and Washington, experts said after a new analysis of satellite imagery showed disassembly was underway.

Photos taken from Friday to Sunday indicated that the North had started to disassemble portions of its Sohae Satellite Launching Station, the country’s main satellite launch facility since 2012, according to the analysis by 38 North, a prominent North Korea monitoring group.

Most notably, it said, the dismantlement was proceeding at a rail-mounted processing building — where space launch vehicles are assembled before being moved to a launchpad — as well as at a nearby rocket engine test stand used to develop liquid-fuel engines for ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles.

The group called the move “an important first step towards fulfilling a commitment” made by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at his June 12 summit with U.S. President Donald Trump.

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

An official with South Korea’s presidential Blue House said Tuesday that he was briefed about the dismantlement based on government intelligence but did not elaborate, according to the South’s Yonhap news agency.

According to Yonhap, Nam Gwan-pyo, deputy director of the South’s national security office, said: “It’s better than doing nothing.”

“And it seems like they are going step by step toward denuclearization,” Nam said.

Asked about the analysis, the U.S. State Department declined to comment.

Trump said after the June summit that Kim had pledged to dismantle one of his missile installations, which would be North Korea’s most concrete concession to emerge from the Singapore meeting. At the time, the president did not name the site, though media reports quoting unidentified U.S. officials later identified it as Sohae — the newest and largest of North Korea’s several known major missile-testing facilities.

Although Trump hailed the Singapore summit as a success, skeptics have questioned this assumption, given that Pyongyang, which has rejected unilaterally relinquishing its nuclear weapons, appeared to make no new tangible commitments in a vaguely worded joint statement.

In late April, the North announced that it would suspend nuclear tests and some missile launches, while also scrapping its Punggye-ri nuclear test site — which it later destroyed in May — as it shifted its focus to pursuing economic growth. Those moves were widely seen symbolic gestures ahead of the Singapore summit.

The Sohae dismantlement, however, appeared to be something different, potentially able to inject fresh momentum into the denuclearization process.

“I think this is more than a PR stunt, because it costs money and political capital at home,” said James Schoff, a former senior Pentagon East Asia specialist now in the Carnegie Asia Program in Washington. “North Korea seems to be investing in the mutual confidence building process, which is not insignificant.”

Jenny Town, managing editor of 38 North, which is based at Washington’s Stimson Center, said that experts with the group were surprised to see the dismantlement process beginning at Sohae, after an earlier analysis showed no signs of such activity there or at any other known sites last month.

“We didn’t expect to see anything,” she told The Japan Times.

Town said that while dismantlement was “absolutely” reversible and “clearly isn’t going to affect North Korea’s core capabilities,” it had implications for the negotiating process with the U.S., which had hit a wall in recent weeks.

“This was done unilaterally,” Town said. “There is no technical agreement right now (between the North and the United States). They’re still doing these things in advance of an agreement as confidence building measures to show their commitment to the negotiating process.

“This gives momentum for negotiations to continue,” Town added.

On Monday, ahead of the report’s release, Trump blasted the media for reports that he was unhappy with the slow pace of progress on the nuclear issue, while also claiming that Japan — and all of Asia — were satisfied with developments since last month’s summit.

“A Rocket has not been launched by North Korea in 9 months. Likewise, no Nuclear Tests. Japan is happy, all of Asia is happy. But the Fake News is saying, without ever asking me (always anonymous sources), that I am angry because it is not going fast enough. Wrong, very happy!” Trump wrote on Twitter, incorrectly stating the number of months since Pyongyang’s last missile test on Nov. 29.

Citing an unidentified U.S. official, CNN reported Monday that Trump had “privately expressed frustration over the perceived lack of progress in the talks.”

That report said continued negotiations hinged on Washington’s willingness to make a “bold move” and set the two nations on the path to reaching a deal on a peace treaty to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War. The North and the U.S.-led side are still technically in a state of war, as the conflict ended in an armistice.

Asked about the report, a State Department spokesperson said peace on the Korean Peninsula “is a goal shared by the world.”

“However, the international community has repeatedly made clear it will not accept a nuclear-armed DPRK,” the spokesperson told The Japan Times, using the acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “As we have stated before, we are committed to building a peace mechanism with the goal of replacing the armistice agreement when North Korea has denuclearized.”

38 North’s Town said movement toward a peace regime, including an announcement declaring an end to the Korean War, remained high on the North’s agenda for its talks with the U.S.

“They keep emphasizing in this process that this isn’t just about the unilateral dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program,” Town said. “There has to be a fundamental change in the political relationship to really get down that road.”

But while the dismantlement of Sohae gives Trump some breathing room after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s uneventful talks recently in Pyongyang, Carnegie’s Schoff was wary of the North using the move to push for a peace regime.

“I hope they don’t use this to justify steps toward ending the war,” he said. “That should really be a two-way street of militarily relevant confidence building measures … like a full declaration and a clearer agreement and process for denuclearization.”

Instead, Schoff suggested the U.S. could reciprocate by working with Seoul, Beijing, Tokyo and Moscow to approve some economic engagement exemptions for South Korea to work with the North in certain special economic zones.

“That would keep up momentum, support North-South relations, maintain good U.S.-South ties, and be reversible, like the Sohae move,” he said. “A peace treaty or end-of-war declaration is harder to undo.”

Little is known about the Sohae site, located in Tongchang-ri near the country’s border with China, and much has been pieced together from analysts’ assessments and the North Korean state-run media.

It was reported to have been established in 2008 and has research facilities nearby for missile development as well as a tower that can support ballistic missiles. In December 2012, the North launched a rocket, ostensibly called a space launch vehicle, from the site that overflew Okinawa and crashed in the ocean some 300 km off the Philippines. Officials from the Japanese and U.S. governments have criticized the North’s space launch program as a thinly veiled way to test ballistic missile components.

The Sohae site has also been used to test large Paektusan engines built for long-range missiles such as the Hwasong-15 ICBM, which the North claims is capable of striking all of the United States.

But the site has diminished in importance as Pyongyang pivots toward solid-fueled missiles launched from mobile vehicles.

Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California, said Monday that the dismantling is “a good move” but called it “the bare minimum that can be done at the site.”

“North Korea does not need the Sohae engine test stand anymore if it is confident in the engine design,” she wrote on Twitter. As Kim “said himself, North Korea is moving from testing to mass production.”

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