North Korea hiding military bases that could launch nuclear missiles at the US, reports show
- The hidden network is designed to maintain Pyongyang’s long-range launch capability even after joint air strikes by South Korean and US forces
- The reports would appear to contradict North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s denuclearisation pledges
North Korea has at least 13 operating missile bases that its government has not declared, a network designed to maintain Pyongyang’s ability to launch missiles capable of reaching the continental US even after joint air strikes by South Korean and American forces, according to new reports from a Washington think tank.
Satellite imagery of one such site, located 135 kilometres (84 miles) northwest of Seoul, reveals entrances to seven underground missile facilities and missile launchers hidden by camouflaged tarps, said one of two reports on Monday by the Beyond Parallel programme of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington-based think tank.
Imagery of the Sakkanmol missile base “continues to show minor infrastructure changes to the base that are consistent with what is often seen at remote [Korean People’s Army] bases of all types”, the report said.
“As of November 2018, the base is active and being reasonably well-maintained by North Korean standards.”
Beyond Parallel is led by Victor Cha, who was a candidate to become Washington’s ambassador to South Korea, a position left open by US President Donald Trump more than a year into his term in the White House. The programme is a clearing house for information and ideas about Korean unification.
The CSIS reports would appear to complicate efforts by Trump and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to hold North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to denuclearisation pledges he and his ministers have made in the months since Trump’s summit with Kim in Singapore in June.
“We have known for some time that North Koreans are starting to deploy and even test missiles at the unit level,” said Stephan Haggard, a professor of Korea-Pacific studies at the University of California at San Diego. “The last round of tests under Kim Jong-un were not just coming from missile test sites. What [the CSIS reports show] is how hard it will be to really cap the programme.
“And of course, no one seriously believes that North Korea’s underlying capability has been neutralised. That is a fantasy. The only thing we have at the moment is a freeze on testing, which could, of course, be reversed easily.”
Trump has faced criticism that his approach to North Korea is allowing Kim to continue building his nuclear missile capability.
The president has countered that his strategy stopped the country’s missile test firings and underground nuclear tests, which occurred several times in 2017. The CSIS reports may give Trump’s critics more ammunition.
“After extensive research, including interviews with North Korean defectors and government, defence and intelligence officials around the world, many of these issues have been addressed and it appears that the KPA (Korean People’s Army) currently has approximately 15-20 missile operating bases,” CSIS said in another report on Monday.
Beyond Parallel classifies the operational North Korean missile bases into three zones, or “belts”, with the closest, where Sakkanmol is located, considered to be “tactical”.
Some 50 to 90 kilometres (31 to 56 miles) from the demilitarised zone that has separated the two Koreas since 1953, “these bases are far enough forward to provide coverage of critical facilities in the northern two-thirds of South Korea, yet far enough from the DMZ to be beyond the range of South Korean and US long-range artillery,” the report said.
Bases in the furthest, or “strategic”, belt are more than 150km (93 miles) from the DMZ, and are likely to be equipped with the Hwasong class of missiles, which can reach the US mainland, according to the report.
“The dispersed deployment of these bases and distinctive tactics employed by ballistic missile units are combined with decades of extensive camouflage, concealment and deception practices to maximise the survival of its missile units from pre-emptive strikes and during wartime operations,” it said.
“Rather than returning to an operating base – which will undoubtedly be the target of repeated attacks – both the technical support element and launchers will remain in the field using pre-positioned reloads and supplies while moving frequently to different pre-surveyed locations,” the report said.
US officials including Pompeo and Nikki Haley, Washington’s ambassador to the UN, have insisted on North Korea’s “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation” before approving any scaling back of UN Security Council sanctions meant to cut the country’s external trade to humanitarian aid and small quantities of fuel.
“These latest revelations are unlikely to cause the Trump administration to change its policy toward North Korea but they do raise some important questions,” said Paul Stares, a senior fellow for conflict prevention and director of the Centre for Preventive Action at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. “At what point do they say enough is enough and admit failure. And what happens after that?"
Pyongyang has asked for “phased and synchronised measures” for denuclearisation, meaning the international community would slowly relax or drop sanctions with each step in the denuclearisation process, rather than waiting until its completion.
“Chairman Kim has repeatedly expressed his strong will to denuclearise,” South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in said after meeting the North Korean leader in September, adding that the North Korean leader wanted to “focus on economic development” as soon as possible.
The Trump administration abandoned Victor Cha as its pick for the South Korean ambassador’s post because Cha disagreed with the “bloody nose” preventive strike strategy proposed by some in the administration as a way to achieve the president’s goal of removing nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula, according to analysts interviewed by the South China Morning Post at the time.
Cha is a former director for Asian affairs in the White House’s National Security Council and was a top adviser for Korean affairs under US president George W. Bush.
Additional reporting by Zhenhua Lu