The White House continues to hold out hope that the “final, fully verified denuclearization” of North Korea is possible by the end of President Donald Trump’s term in 2021, a senior administration official said Thursday, amid reports warning that a key rocket site is now “operational” despite a promise by Pyongyang to dismantle it.
“We still believe this is all achievable within the president’s first term, and that’s the timetable we’re working on,” the senior U.S. State Department official told reporters on condition of anonymity. “We have discussed extensively the outlines of the calendar that allow us to do that, and it is doable.”
The official also threw cold water on a more incremental process, despite earlier allusions to the U.S. being open to such an approach.
“Nobody in the administration advocates a step-by-step approach,” he said. “In all cases, the expectation is a complete denuclearization of North Korea as a condition for all the other steps being taken.”
Some experts have said that the United States does not have the leverage to make major denuclearization progress in one fell swoop, calling it unrealistic to think that the North, with a credible nuclear deterrent, will put it on the bargaining table immediately.
“Only steps over the time that progressively put more things the North Koreans want on the table — like sanctions relief and progress toward political normalization — have a chance of giving Washington the leverage it needs to press for concrete North Korean steps in return on denuclearization,” said Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. State Department official who worked on North Korean issues.
“Denuclearization, if it happens, is going to be a long and complicated process,” he added. “If we don’t recognize that, we don’t have a chance.”
The top administration official’s comments came as the North reportedly ramped up activity in recent days at a long-range missile and space-launch vehicle production facility in addition to the rebuilding of the Sohae rocket launch site. The Sohae site had been partially deconstructed after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un promised to dismantle it at his first summit with Trump in June in Singapore.
Asked the same day if he was disappointed about the recent North Korean activity, Trump told reporters, “It’s disappointing,” while adding without elaborating, “We’ll see. We’ll let you know in about a year.”
Still, the official struck a cautiously optimistic tone after the collapse of nuclear talks at Trump’s summit in Hanoi last month with Kim, saying that negotiators had moved closer in their understanding of what “denuclearization” means.
Asked if the two sides had reached an agreed-upon definition, the official said they “have the elements of one.”
“We have closed some of the gaps on what that would be, and as we have closed some of the gaps on other issues, like declarations and freezes,” the official said.
“Some of that is an accumulation of the issues we have discussed in the course of our discussions over the first three months of this year. Some of the ideas are still ours and remain to be accepted by the North Koreans.”
The official said that though the “door remains open” for continued talks, “there will necessarily need to be a period of reflection here. Both sides are going to have to digest the outcome to the summit.”
This period of reflection, however, is likely to see a number of ups and downs, including moves by both sides to gain leverage ahead of any next round of talks.
And with its work at the Sohae site, Pyongyang may be the first to take such steps after images taken Wednesday showed that a rail-mounted structure to transfer rockets to the launchpad there appeared to have been completed and “may now be operational,” the North Korea-watching website 38 North said, citing commercial satellite imagery used to track construction that they said began before the Hanoi summit.
Cranes have been removed from the pad, while progress also appeared to have been made on rebuilding the support structure for a rocket engine testing stand.
“Given that construction, plus activity at other areas of the site, Sohae (Satellite Launching Station) appears to have returned to normal operational status,” 38 North’s report said.
While the official said he would “not necessarily share the conclusion” that the Sohae site was operational again, any use of it would be seen as “backsliding” on commitments to Trump.
“We are watching in real-time developments at Sohae and we will definitely be seeking clarification on the purposes of that,” he said, noting that while Sohae is part of the country’s missile program “it is not a critical part of that infrastructure at this point.”
Sohae, which is also known by the name of its location, Tongchang-ri, is the site from which Pyongyang launched satellites in 2012 and 2016. Those rocket launches were condemned by the international community and widely viewed as thinly veiled tests of ballistic missile technology.
The North has effectively maintained a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests, with its last nuclear blast coming in September 2017 and its last ballistic missile test in November of that year.
It is unclear how Pyongyang sees space launches, but in the past it has shown that it views them as separate from its missile program. The U.S., however, has not made that distinction.
“In our judgment, (the) launch of a space-launch vehicle from that site … would be inconsistent with the commitments that the North Koreans have made,” the senior official said.