Just how friendly has Kim Jong-un become with Donald Trump? The administration plans to test out the relationship by asking North Korea to allow US inspectors on the ground to check out the newly renovated missile-launch site in Tongchang-ri.
Does anyone want to guess what the answer will be? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?
The U.S. will ask North Korea to admit American inspectors to a missile-launch site that Pyongyang has begun to restore, but the Trump administration hasn’t concluded the facility is currently operational, a senior State Department official said.
Satellite photos made public on Thursday by 38 North, a website on North Korean nuclear issues, shows construction to rebuild the launchpad at the site has moved quickly and that a structure to move missiles to that pad now appears to have been completed. Work also has been done on a missile engine test stand.
Given this construction and other activity at the location, 38 North said the site “appears to have returned to normal operational status.”
Rest assured that the US is not relying on just 38 North, which has been a pretty reliable source nonetheless. NBC News reports that the US intelligence community has watched the reinstallation at Tongchang-ri unfold in real time and still don’t know what to make of it. They do assess that it’s back to business as usual at the facility, which the North Koreans have called the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, although no one’s quite sure what “business” that might be:
According to the official, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had pledged to dismantle Sohae both at his June summit with President Donald Trump in Singapore, and again during a meeting with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in in September. Kim also said independent inspectors would be allowed to verify compliance on the ground, he said.
“The intent of the North Koreans in this matter is known only to them, we don’t know why they are taking these steps,” the State Department official told reporters. “They need to keep their commitments to the president of the United States.” …
The State Department official said that while it is important for North Korea to act as it had promised, the U.S. side did not see Sohae as a “critical” part of Pyongyang’s missile program because such tests have most recently been from mobile launchers.
“I don’t want to diminish the concerns we have, but I also don’t want to exaggerate their importance to their infrastructure,” the official said.
It’s good to keep the context in mind, but the development is still troubling. For one thing, UN sanctions prohibit Pyongyang from developing launchers even for space exploration, a consequence of their rogue ICBM development. The US and pretty much everyone else considers the North Korean space program a stalking horse for developing a delivery system for nuclear warheads to hit the US and others, especially Japan. Reactivating Sohae even for that limited purpose would restart that danger.
The more acute issue for Trump is political, though. Reopening Tongchang-ri for any purpose would renege on a key agreement between Trump and Kim — trading a moratorium on missile launches and nuclear tests for a stand-down on large-scale military exercises with South Korea. If Kim launches a missile, Trump will have to respond with war games, and all the supposed progress of the last year-plus will vanish, along with Trump’s claims of friendship with Kim.
That’s why Trump today made sure to emphasize that the relationship “remains good”:
— CBS News (@CBSNews) March 8, 2019
Trump says he’d be “surprised” if Kim did anything contrary to their understandings and agreements. We’d all better hope that Trump doesn’t get surprised in the near future. And let’s hope that we all get pleasantly “surprised” by an invitation for inspectors to Tongchang-ri, but don’t hold your breath waiting for it.
By the way, this is not a good sign. But it’s not a surprise, either.
#breaking For the first time, North Korean state media is acknowledging the failed summit in Vietnam…and blaming the U.S. This, as new satellite images indicate a formerly dormant launch site is now operational. Could this signal a shift to a more militaristic posture? pic.twitter.com/OjMbS93pVO
— Will Ripley (@willripleyCNN) March 8, 2019