Imagery indicates North Korea has halted dismantling of missile site amid nuclear impasse with U.S.

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

Satellite imagery from last week shows that North Korea has halted the dismantling of a key missile engine testing site amid an apparent impasse in negotiations with the United States on its denuclearization, a monitoring group has said.

An analysis published Wednesday of imagery taken Aug. 16 of Sohae Satellite Launching Station, the North’s main satellite launch facility since 2012, indicated there has been “no significant dismantlement activity” at either the site’s engine test stand or launchpad since Aug. 3, according to 38 North, a prominent North Korea monitoring group.

The report said that while there had been significant progress in tearing down the test stand from July to early August, “the components previously removed remain stacked on the ground.”

At the launchpad, the analysis said that work on the rail-mounted transfer/processing building also “appears to have stalled,” with the gantry tower and assembly building still intact.

It was unclear, it added, if the activity that had already taken place was associated with dismantling or modification of the structure.

Experts had said in late July that the dismantlement at the Sohae site could help push U.S.-North Korean talks forward in the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s landmark Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June.

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 released after the meeting.

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.

Recent news, however, has put a damper on those hopes.

On Monday, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said in a report that it had not found any indication that North Korea had stopped its nuclear activities — including those at alleged secret sites.

Last month, media reports revealed that the North was secretly operating a suspected uranium enrichment facility, called Kangson. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acknowledged during Senate testimony later in the month that North Korean factories “continue to produce fissile material” used in making nuclear weapons.

Speculation has grown that Pompeo will soon make his fourth visit to North Korea, with an apparent aim of breaking the impasse in denuclearization talks.

In a Sunday interview on ABC’s “This Week,” White House national security adviser John Bolton said that Pompeo would be returning to North Korea soon, this time for direct talks with Kim — or so the Trump administration hoped.

Trump has defended his efforts to convince Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons, saying in an interview Monday that he believed the North had taken specific steps toward denuclearization, and that he would “most likely” meet again with Kim.