A sign of good faith from Kim Jong-un, or a sleight of hand intended to pacify Donald Trump and force concessions? The respected analysts at 38 North, who focus on Korean security issues, report from new satellite imagery that the North Koreans have begun large-scale dismantling at Sohae, considered to be a major part of the regime’s ballistic-missile development program.
But what does that mean?
In an important first step towards fulfilling a commitment made by Kim Jong Un at the June 12 Singapore Summit, new commercial satellite imagery of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station (North Korea’s main satellite launch facility since 2012) indicates that the North has begun dismantling key facilities. Most notably, these include the rail-mounted processing building—where space launch vehicles are prepared before moving them to the launch pad—and the nearby rocket engine test stand used to develop liquid-fuel engines for ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles. 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.
Commercial satellite imagery of the launch pad from July 20 shows that the rail-mounted processing/transfer structure has been moved to the middle of the pad, exposing the underground rail transfer point—one of the few times it has been seen in this location. The roof and supporting structure have been partially removed and numerous vehicles are present—including a large construction crane. An image from two days later shows the continued presence of the crane and vehicles. Considerable progress has been made in dismantling the rail-mounted processing/transfer structure. One corner has been completely dismantled and the parts can be seen lying on the ground. In both images the two fuel/oxidizer bunkers, main processing building and gantry tower remain untouched.
Imagery of the vertical engine test stand from July 20 shows the presence of a crane and a number of vehicles. The rail-mounted environmental shelter—which hadn’t been moved since December 2017—has been razed and removed, the older fuel/oxidizer bunkers are in the process of being razed, and portions of the test stand’s upper steel framework have been dismantled and its paneling removed.
Two days later fewer vehicles are present and the test stand superstructure has been completely dismantled, leaving only the base, which is also in the process of being removed. No additional progress is noted on the demolition of the older fuel/oxidizer bunkers. In both images, the two newer fuel/oxidizer bunkers and vehicle garage remain untouched, as does the concrete foundation of the test stand. Given the state of activity, work is likely to have begun sometime within the past two weeks.
The BBC and AFP both reported these developments as a positive sign of Kim’s commitment to a peaceful resolution of the US-North Korea standoff. At the very least, it’s something, argued one analyst, even if it might be a “bare minimum”:
Trump said in Singapore that Kim had committed to destroying a “major” missile engine test site, without specifying the site.
Sohae has been the North’s main rocket launch site since 2012, and South Korea — whose president brokered the landmark summit between Trump and Kim — called it a step towards denuclearisation.
“It’s a better sign than doing nothing,” Nam Gwan-pyo, deputy director of the presidential national security office, told reporters.
“I believe they are moving step by step towards denuclearisation,” Nam added.
Not so fast, argues CNN’s Will Ripley, who regularly covers Korean Peninsula developments. It’s not as significant to dismantle test platforms now that the Kim regime has proven their designs, although they’ll certainly sell it that way:
Sohae Launch Site is old news for North Korea. They launched liquid fueled rockets there. Now they’ve moved to solid fuel, much easier to launch quickly. Dismantling Sohae is kinda like taking apart the old Chevy while putting fresh tires on the Porsche. https://t.co/eVLgyvy7f1 pic.twitter.com/sueiCMW8GX
— Will Ripley (@willripleyCNN) July 24, 2018
Adam Mount, a senior fellow and director at the Federation of American Scientists, agreed that these steps “are encouraging and helpful for extending talks” but noted they “are not themselves a major material step toward disarmament or militarily significant restrictions.”
“This is consistent with North Korea’s public line, which is that its successful test program is now transitioning to mass production of nuclear and missile systems,” he said.
“Dismantling test infrastructure, especially for space launch vehicles, does not change this calculation. It’s also troubling that North Korea has apparently been allowed to dodge verification at both Punggye-ri and Sohae. That will have to be fixed for subsequent agreements,” Mount added.
And while Monday’s images may amount to a “confidence building measure” by the North Koreans, it appears that they expect the US to reciprocate if talks are to continue.
The BBC reports on some recent activity around the Yongbyon nuclear reactor that points to a production surge:
But according to recent reports based on US intelligence leaks, North Korea might secretly still be continuing its weapons programme.
Those reports indicate that North Korea’s only official nuclear enrichment site at Yongbyon is being upgraded, and that the country was stepping up enrichment at other secret sites.
The reports cannot be independently verified, but have been deemed accurate by respected North Korea watchers.
Nearly three weeks ago, 38 North reported on developments at Yongbyon:
Recent commercial satellite imagery indicates that North Korea has finished work on the secondary cooling system for the 5 MWe reactor. It is unclear whether the detection of water flowing from the pump house indicates that the system is being tested or that the reactor is beginning operations.
Satellite imagery also indicates that operational testing of the experimental light water reactor’s (ELWR) secondary cooling system is ongoing and may have begun as early as late March 2018. Thermal infrared (TIR) imagery confirms that despite the testing, the reactor itself was not yet operational as of June 14. Testing of these systems is likely standard procedure to ensure the safe and efficient use of the reactors if they resume/start operations.
In addition to two previously identified non-industrial, blue-roofed buildings, two additional structures have been recently built, with one now in each of the four major operational areas of Yongbyon. Their purpose remains unclear, although one possibility is for use by VIP visitors, either senior North Korean staff or officials, or foreigners.
That might be in anticipation of IAEA verification visits, which a denuclearization pact would necessitate. On the other hand, any kind of upgrades to Yongbyon would necessarily raise all sorts of questions about Kim’s plans to produce more weapons-grade material for nuclear weapons. The plutonium production reactor has been quiet in these surveillance photos since March, about the same time that the standoff radically shifted to engagement. However, it appears that Kim made sure to complete some key upgrades before attempting to cut a deal.
The question of whether Kim is making real concessions will dog the White House’s efforts not just with North Korea, but also with Iran, as I wrote in my column at The Week:
Trump came to Washington promising to set a different tone, pledging to offer belligerency as a response to belligerents like Iran. His recent experience in turning the tables on North Korea may show what he has in mind with his sudden and remarkable response to Rouhani. …
Trump seems to think a similar strategy will work on Tehran. However, it’s not yet clear that it’s actually worked on Pyongyang. Despite having made promises during the run-up to the Singapore summit on denuclearization, North Korea now says it wants a peace treaty first as a precondition to ensure the security of the Kim regime. That won’t fly at all, as the Trump administration has made clear that normalization can only come at the end of denuclearization and the elimination of the threat Pyongyang poses to the region. North Korean negotiators have stopped showing up for scheduled talks at times, and it appears earlier promises from Kim that missile facilities had been dismantled might not have been true at all.
Engagement is still better than continually ramping up toward a military conflict, but we have to take care about proclaiming victories before they actually arrive. We need independent verification of dismantling before moving forward on any sanctions relief. Otherwise, we’ll just end up replaying the same failures with the Kim regime that got us where we were at in March.