North Korea dismantlement begins Trump sees vindication on nukes; skeptics say much left undone
New satellite imagery suggests that President Trump’s landmark summit last month with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has returned its first significant dividend, providing evidence that Pyongyang has begun to dismantle portions of a key missile test site.
Pictures taken late last week and made public last week show North Korean workers apparently disassembling its Sohae Satellite Launching Station, a site used to make liquid-fuel engines for ballistic missiles and space-launch vehicles. The move represents the first concrete step taken by Mr. Kim since his June 12 meeting with Mr. Trump in Singapore and comes as welcome news for an administration that has been under increasing fire for failing to produce any tangible results from the summit.
But lawmakers, regional analysts and even the president’s secretary of state were urging caution amid fears that the reclusive regime may simply be stalling and that no independent observers were present to confirm the North’s moves.
The president, who reportedly has grown angry with news coverage of the meeting, told a crowd in Kansas City, Missouri, that the satellite pictures prove that the negotiation process with North Korea is “going very well.”
“We’re also pursuing the denuclearization of North Korea and a new future of prosperity, security and peace on the Korean Peninsula and all of Asia. New images, just today, show that North Korea has begun the process of dismantling a key missile site. And we appreciate that,” Mr. Trump said at an annual Veterans of Foreign Wars convention. “We had a fantastic meeting with Chairman Kim, and it seems to be going very well.”
The satellite images were released by 38 North, an arm of the Stimson Center, a leading Washington think tank.
While Mr. Trump and South Korean leaders lauded the news, other top administration officials and leading lawmakers, including some prominent Republicans, were more muted, and there are serious questions about whether the Sohae facility still plays a major part in Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, said the U.S. shouldn’t assume the Korean Peninsula is any safer now that the site is being dismantled.
“Any dismantling by #NorthKorea is good. But we should be careful not to get too giddy about this one,” he said on Twitter. “This is largely symbolic & does little to degrade their dangerous & growing ICBM capability which relies on different sites & different technology.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Mr. Trump’s point man in the nuclear talks with Mr. Kim, would not confirm the reports of Sohae’s destruction, though he said the step would be consistent with the broad outlines of the discussions in Singapore. He said inspectors should be on the ground inside North Korea to verify the moves — something Mr. Kim apparently has not allowed.
“It would 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,” Mr. Pompeo said at a California news conference alongside Defense Secretary James Mattis and top Australian officials. “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.”
South Korean support
Despite the skepticism in Washington, officials in South Korea said the move should be seen as a positive step forward in what is sure to be a long, slow-moving process.
“We see it as a good sign and as part of the step-by-step process toward denuclearization,” said Nam Gwan-pyo, deputy director of South Korea’s National Security Office, told The Korea Times. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a longtime proponent of engagement with the North, has been a prime mover in the U.S.-North Korean rapprochement.
In its research, 38 North — which released at least eight photographs showing parts of the facility being taken apart over the past several days — said the site has served as North Korea’s main satellite launch hub for the past six years.
“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 research group said.
Specifically, 38 North said photos show large construction cranes and the apparent disassembling of a key rail-mounted processing and transfer structure. Older fuel/ oxidizer bunkers also are being razed, and a missile test stand has been taken apart. Other parts of the facility — such as newer fuel/oxidizer bunkers and a large vehicle garage — appear to have not been touched.
But regional analysts say the move leaves the U.S. far short of Mr. Trump’s original demand: a quick, complete, verifiable and irreversible end to the North’s nuclear weapons and missile programs. The North has sent mixed signals on its readiness to give up its nuclear programs, and Mr. Trump’s critics say there is still no firm outline of the steps North Korea is willing to take.
Mr. Trump and Mr. Pompeo suggested that they learned of Sohae’s dismantling from the satellite imagery, not from direct talks with the North Koreans.
“It is remarkable that we do not have on paper what is frozen, what missile tests are not taking place, whether or not nuclear tests are being done. As we have seen in previous cases, that can be a disaster,” Richard Johnson, senior director for fuel cycle and verification at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, said this week at an event in Washington hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“We need to leave the negotiating table with the same understanding, and we should get it in writing,” he said. “We have multiple cases where the U.S. and North Korea got together, thought they had a deal and then walked away. And it became clear that they did not [have] the same understanding.”
This satellite image released and annotated by 38 North on Monday shows what the U.S. research group says is the partial dismantling of the rail-mounted transfer structure (center) at the key Sohae missile launch site in North Korea.