Asia Pacific

North Korea carries out 'very important' test at long-range rocket site

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

Nuclear-armed North Korea said it had carried out “a very important test” at its Sohae long-range rocket site, state meda reported Sunday, after U.S. President Donald Trump said he doesn’t think Pyongyang will engage in hostile acts and interfere with the upcoming presidential election.

“The Academy of the National Defence Science of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea made a report on the results of the successful test of great significance to the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea,” the short dispatch by the official Korean Central News Agency said without revealing details of what exactly was tested Saturday.

“The results of the recent important test will have an important effect on changing the strategic position of the DPRK once again in the near future,” it added, using the acronym for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The North has in the past used the Sohae site to test powerful engines for both missiles and rockets and media reports say a new satellite image indicated the country may be preparing to resume testing engines used to power satellite launchers at the site.

The U.N. bans North Korea from launching satellites because it is considered a test of ballistic missile technology. Saturday’s test was the first to take place at the site since March 2017, when the country was reported to have conducted a ground jet test of a new high-thrust rocket engine.

Missile experts said it was likely that the North had conducted a static test of a rocket engine, rather than an actual missile launch.

“This is likely a ground-based engine test at the Sohae test stand. This is *not* a launch,” Ankit Panda, an adjunct senior fellow with the Federation of American Scientists, wrote on Twitter.

The reported test came amid ramped-up pressure by the North on the U.S. to make concessions in deadlocked nuclear talks.

Trump told at a news conference immediately following his June 2018 first summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that the North had pledged to dismantle one of its missile installations, which U.S. officials later identified as Sohae.

Satellite imagery weeks after that summit showed that the North had begun dismantling the site, but new imagery from March this year showed it had begun reconstructing it after the second Trump-Kim summit in February collapsed in a disagreement over the lifting of sanctions and the level of denuclearization.

Trump said Saturday that he doesn’t believe the North will undertake provocations that could hurt his re-election bid.

“I’d be surprised if North Korea acted hostilely,” Trump said at the White House. “He knows I have an election coming up. I don’t think he wants to interfere with that. But we’ll have to see.”

The North successfully put a satellite into orbit for the first time in 2012, after numerous failed attempts, in a launch from the same site. In 2016, it successfully launched another satellite from Sohae.

At the United Nations, a statement released by the North’s ambassador to the United Nations, Kim Song, said that denuclearization had “already gone out of the negotiation table.”

Song’s accused the White House of pursuing a “hostile policy” toward the country “in its attempt to stifle it.” The ambassador also said Washington’s claims that it is engaged in a “sustained and substantial dialogue” with Pyongyang solely for “its domestic political agenda.”

“We do not need to have lengthy talks with the U.S. now and the denuclearization is already gone out of the negotiation table,” Song said.

Song’s statement was a response to Wednesday’s condemnation by six European countries of North Korea’s 13 ballistic missile launches since May. He accused the Europeans — France, Germany, Britain, Belgium, Poland and Estonia — of playing “the role of pet dog of the United States in recent months.” He called their statement “yet another serious provocation” against North Korea’s “righteous measures of strengthening national defense capabilities.”

“We regard their behavior as nothing more than a despicable act of intentionally flattering the United States,” Song said.

The statement echoed a series of remarks from senior North Korean officials, including one that it is “up to the U.S. what Christmas gift it will select” as a year-end deadline set by Kim for a “new approach” by the White House to stalled nuclear talks grows ever closer.

In an apparent sign of resolve amid the nuclear standoff, Kim visited his regime’s most sacred site, snowy Mount Paektu, state media reported Wednesday, “to instill the indefatigable revolutionary spirit” of the mountain into North Koreans “despite the unprecedented blockade and pressure,” a reference to suffocating U.S. and international sanctions over Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

Photos accompanying the report showed Kim at the summit of Paektu for the second time in two months, leading a large entourage touring “revolutionary battle sites” atop a white steed. Kim and his predecessors have in the past visited the mountain ahead of key decisions on the country’s future.

In a sign that such a decision is in the cards, KCNA said shortly after the Paektu report that North Korea will hold a plenary session of its ruling party’s powerful central committee later this month. It said the meeting would be held “in order to discuss and decide on crucial issues … and the changed situation at home and abroad.”

At the last such meeting in April, Kim called on the United States and President Donald Trump to make a “courageous decision” by the end of the year and present the North with a “new way of calculation” in the nuclear talks.

Experts have told The Japan Times that since a deal before the deadline is unlikely, Kim may try to keep the nuclear talks on Trump’s mind. One way of doing this, they said, could be firing an intermediate-range ballistic missile or rocket over Japan or launching a satellite.

“I don’t think a deal will be made in the near term,” said Yun Sun, with the Stimson Center think tank in Washington. The North “will respond by testing, such as a satellite launch.”

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