Asia Pacific

Trump plays up North Korean reports of missile site dismantling

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday played up reports that North Korea has begun dismantling key parts of a missile test site, but the president’s enthusiasm contrasted with remarks by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who said the same day that verification and inspections would still be needed to confirm the news.

Trump hailed satellite images indicating that Pyongyang had started to disassemble portions of its Sohae Satellite Launching Station, citing them as a sign of progress in the wake of his meeting last month with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore.

“New images … show that North Korea has begun the process of dismantling a key missile site,” Trump told a VFW convention in Kansas City, Missouri. “And we appreciate that. We had a fantastic meeting with Chairman Kim, and it seems to be going very well.”

Photos taken from Friday to Sunday appeared to show that the North had started to dismantle portions of Sohae, the country’s main satellite launch facility since 2012, according to the analysis by 38 North, a prominent North Korea monitoring group.

Most notably, the group said, the dismantlement was proceeding at a rail-mounted processing building — where space launch vehicles are assembled before moving them 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 Kim at the June summit, where the North Korean leader pledged to dismantle one of his missile installations — the most concrete concession to emerge from the Singapore meeting.

Pompeo, however, was more circumspect in his reaction to the news, saying that while such a step would be in line with Kim’s pledges, it would have to be confirmed by international inspectors.

“It’d be entirely consistent with the commitment that Chairman Kim made to President Trump when the two of them were in Singapore together. We made that commitment orally,” Pompeo said at a televised news conference in Palo Alto, California, with Defense Secretary James Mattis and their Australian counterparts.

“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,” said Pompeo, who also attended the Singapore summit and has visited Pyongyang three times this year.

Asked what more North Korea needed to do, Pompeo replied: “That’s easy. They need to completely, fully denuclearize. That’s the steps that Chairman Kim committed to and the world has demanded through U.N. Security Council resolutions. It’s that straightforward.”

Pompeo’s comments on the need for verification were echoed in Washington.

“Verification is obviously something that is paramount,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said. “Verification from legitimate groups and done by legitimate countries is something that … the United States government will be looking for.”

James Schoff, a former senior Pentagon East Asia specialist now in the Carnegie Asia Program in Washington, said that while this would be ideal, the dismantling at Sohae “is a step less dependent on a human verification process.”

“We can see via satellite and we’re not trying to verify past nuclear reprocessing or fissile material production or such, so it’s OK for now, but we should not let this become the norm.”

The U.S., Schoff said, needed to more clearly discuss denuclearization steps as part of a comprehensive plan, starting with a North Korean declaration and with mutually agreed upon steps or means to verify the accuracy of the declaration and completion of further dismantling tasks.

“This process should be clarified soon and ideally it will include representation by Japan, South Korea, China, and Russia, and the IAEA,” he said.

Schoff added that Japan, with its nuclear expertise, could play a key role in the verification process, “as a financial supporter, as a technical adviser, and as a U.S. ally and vital U.N. member concerned about North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and the danger they pose.”

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