North Korea continues to dismantle missile launch site, but no signs of any moves to scrap nuclear weapons
Satellite images suggest work is continuing to demolish Sohae facilities, but analysts suggest it may want to keep other parts of its arsenal intact for now
North Korea appears to have taken another step towards dismantling its fixed missile launching facilities after the US stepped up the pressure to disarm, but so far it appears to have left other facilities and its nuclear warheads intact.
The hermit state appears to be continuing to take down its key intercontinental ballistic missile facilities (ICBM) at Sohae, located at about 200km (120 miles) northwest of the capital Pyongyang, according to the North Korea monitoring group 38 North on late Tuesday.
Pyongyang has torn down the steel base structure of its vertical engine test stand and removed fuel and oxidiser tanks from dismantled bunkers, satellite imagery from August 3 indicated.
Additional work was also observed at the launch pad, where two-thirds of the west wall and a third of the north wall has been removed.
Previously, 38 North had released satellite images taken on July 20 and 22 which suggested that North Korea had begun dismantling the two major facilities at the site – the rail-mounted processing building where launch vehicles are assembled, and the rocket engine test stand where liquid-fuel engines are developed.
The assessment followed Washington’s decision to take a more hawkish stance, demanding that Pyongyang speeds up the process of denuclearisation following the Singapore summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un in June.
US national security adviser John Bolton attacked North Korea on Tuesday saying that it has yet to take necessary steps on denuclearisation.
“What we really need is not more rhetoric … What we need is a performance from North Korea on denuclearisation,” said Bolton.
Bolton’s comments followed reports suggesting North Korea was upgrading its nuclear facilities amid ongoing talks on economic cooperation with China and the South.
Last month the US issued a sanctions enforcement notice to highlight Washington’s concerns about possible breaches of the UN embargo.
The advisory note issued urged the international community to stay aligned with the current UN sanctions regime, with the State Department saying: “The international community cannot let up on the pressure until the DPRK denuclearises.”
However, last month Seoul asked members of the UN Security Council for an exception to the sanctions to speed up inter-Korean economic projects.
But images published late in June suggest that North Korea appears to be upgrading its nuclear facilities at the Yongbyon site, located about 100km north of Pyongyang.
A new engineering office, a new small non-industrial building have been built and modifications to the secondary cooling loop of the 5 megawatt electric plutonium reactor were made as of June 21 – nine days after Kim’s summit with Trump.
At the Singapore summit, both sides affirmed their commitment towards denuclearisation, but left the gap between their differing interpretation of what that means unresolved.
Dismantling the ICBM facilities is a meaningful step towards denuclearisation but Pyongyang may want to keep its nuclear arsenal intact to maximise its bargaining power, analysts said.
Boo Seung-chan, a research fellow at the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies in Seoul, said: “ICBM facilities sit at the core of the United States’ security concerns as it has the capability to deliver a nuclear warhead to the US mainland.”
But Boo said the North’s steps to dismantle the missile site were “meaningful” and “may mean that it will no longer develop ICBM technology”.
“Nevertheless, we must also not forget that North Korea has movable missile launching technologies such as submarine-launched ballistic missile systems. The US will not be fully satisfied by the North Korean measures,” Boo added.
“As Pyongyang has taken actions on denuclearisation, it is likely now likely to demand a reciprocal action and compensation from Washington,” he said, noting that the ball is now in Washington’s court.
Zhao Tong, a fellow on the nuclear policy programme at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy in Beijing, said the denuclearisation process was likely to take a very long time.
“It is very difficult to expect North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal easily … in the worst case scenario, international communities may face the situation of having to accept a nuclear-armed North Korea.”