Despite Trump’s Overhyped Summit, North Korea Is Working On New Missiles
Yet another sign that the Singapore Summit didn't really accomplish much of anything.
In the latest sign that the Singapore Summit really didn’t result in any significant breakthroughs, The Washington Post is reporting that American intelligence agencies are saying that North Korea appears to be working on new ballistic missiles:
U.S. spy agencies are seeing signs that North Korea is constructing new missiles at a factory that produced the country’s first intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States, according to officials familiar with the intelligence.
Newly obtained evidence, including satellite photos taken in recent weeks, indicates that work is underway on at least one and possibly two liquid-fueled ICBMs at a large research facility in Sanumdong, on the outskirts of Pyongyang, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe classified intelligence.
The findings are the latest to show ongoing activity inside North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities at a time when the country’s leaders are engaged in arms talks with the United States. The new intelligence does not suggest an expansion of North Korea’s capabilities but shows that work on advanced weapons is continuing weeks after President Trump declared in a Twitter posting that Pyongyang was “no longer a Nuclear Threat.”
The reports about new missile construction come after recent revelations about a suspected uranium-enrichment facility, called Kangson, that North Korea is operating in secret. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acknowledged during Senate testimony last week that North Korean factories “continue to produce fissile material” used in making nuclear weapons. He declined to say whether Pyongyang is building new missiles.
During a summit with Trump in June, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed to a vaguely worded pledge to “work toward” the “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula. But since then, North Korea has made few tangible moves signaling an intention to disarm.
Instead, senior North Korean officials have discussed their intention to deceive Washington about the number of nuclear warheads and missiles they have, as well as the types and numbers of facilities, and to rebuff international inspectors, according to intelligence gathered by U.S. agencies. Their strategy includes potentially asserting that they have fully denuclearized by declaring and disposing of 20 warheads while retaining dozens more.
The Sanumdong factory has produced two of North Korea’s ICBMs, including the powerful Hwasong-15, the first with a proven range that could allow it to strike the U.S. East Coast. The newly obtained evidence points to ongoing work on at least one Hwasong-15 at the Sanumdong plant, according to imagery collected by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in recent weeks.
“We see them going to work, just as before,” said one U.S. official.
The exception, the officials said, is the Sohae Satellite Launching Station on North Korea’s west coast, where workers can be observed dismantling an engine test stand, honoring a promise made to Trump at the summit.
Many analysts and independent experts, however, see that dismantling as largely symbolic, since North Korea has successfully launched ICBMs that use the kind of liquid-fueled engines tested at Sohae. Moreover, the test stand could easily be rebuilt within months.
Buttressing the intelligence findings, independent missile experts this week also reported observing activity consistent with missile construction at the Sanumdong plant. The daily movement of supply trucks and other vehicles, as captured by commercial satellite photos, shows that the missile facility “is not dead, by any stretch of the imagination,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. The Monterey, Calif., nonprofit group analyzed commercial photos obtained from the satellite imagery firm Planet Labs Inc.
“It’s active. We see shipping containers and vehicles coming and going,” Lewis said of the Sanumdong plant. “This is a facility where they build ICBMs and space-launch vehicles.”
Intriguingly, one image, taken July 7, shows a bright-red covered trailer in a loading area. The trailer appears identical to those used by North Korea in the past to transport ICBMs. How the trailer was being used at the time of the photograph is unclear.
Lewis’s group also published images of a large industrial facility that some U.S. intelligence analysts believe to be the Kangson uranium-enrichment plant. The images, first reported by the online publication the Diplomat, show a football-field-size building surrounded by a high wall, in North Korea’s Chollima-guyok district, southwest of the capital. The complex has a single, guarded entrance and features high-rise residential towers apparently used by workers.
All of this comes almost exactly one and a half months after President Trump met North Korea’s Kim Jong Un for a summit in Singapore that, while it was much hyped by the media and the Administration both before and afterward, clearly seems to have been more a photo opportunity than a sign that anything productive had been accomplished. This was especially true given the fact that the communique that was issued after the meeting was exceedingly vague and spoke more in broad generalities than anything specific. Despite that fact, President Trump claimed in the aftermath of the summit that great progress had been made in the relationship between North Korea and, specifically, that North Korea was no longer a nuclear threat to the United States. It quickly became apparent, though, that the accomplishments in Singapore were much less than meets the eye. Within two weeks after the summit, for example, it was reported that North Korea was increasing production of the fuel needed to make additional nuclear weapons and that it was concealing the existence of ongoing nuclear weapons research at secret facilities well hidden from both surveillance and, most likely, the ability of the United States to take the sites out in a military strike. Additionally, it became apparent in the days after the summit that the much-publicized destruction of the DPRK’s primary nuclear weapons test site, an event it had invited American and other international journalists to witness, was much less than met the eye and that the site could easily be rebuilt if needed in the future. In other words, by the time we reached the one-month anniversary of the summit, it was apparent that the reality of what had been accomplished at the summit did not meet the rhetoric.
The fact that the North Koreans are both dragging their feet on doing anything substantive in the wake of the summit and that they appear to be secretly continuing both their nuclear weapons and ballistic missile research programs should not be a surprise. From the DPRK’s point of view, they got exactly what they wanted out of the Singapore Summit, specifically the international recognition with sharing the stage with the President of the United States combined with the kind of positive worldwide press coverage that has been rare for North Korean leaders in the past. In exchange, they have basically given up nothing. Yes, they have ceased nuclear weapons testing and, at least for the moment, ballistic missile testing, but by all accounts, they had already accomplished their goals in this area to the point where they believe they have what amounts to a nuclear deterrent against a future conventional or non-conventional attack. Additionally, as noted above, the destruction of testing facilities now appears to be much less than meets the eye. The one thing they have done since the summit was last week’s turnover of the remains of roughly 100 allied soldiers who were killed during the Korean War more than sixty years ago as well as an apparent agreement that will allow American and other allied investigators to search areas of North Korea where they believe other remains will be found. That, however, is a relatively costless concession by the DPRK that arguably helps them when it comes to the international public relations game. On the substantive issues dealing with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, though, they have yet to give up anything of substance.
In any case, as I’ve said before, the promises that the DPRK made in Singapore aren’t really worth the paper that they were printed on. This is especially true given the fact that the United States and North Korea clearly have very different ideas of what “denuclearization” means and nothing that happened at the summit changed those differences. Additionally, it’s worth noting that everything that the DPRK supposedly agreed to are essentially the same as what they have agreed to a number of times in the past, such as in 1985, 1992, 1994, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2016. Each of those times, the promises proved to be empty, and the DPRK continued to advance its research programs with respect to both nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Now it seems to be the case that this is happening all over again.
What this news does make clear, though, is that the skepticism that many observers had both before and after the summit was well-founded. The idea that the DPRK is ever going to completely give up its nuclear weapons program is incredibly naive and defies logic. The lessons of recent history, arising out of the different treatment of nations such as Iraq and Libya compared to, for example, Iran, Pakistan, and India, makes it clear that nations that voluntarily give up a deterrent force such as nuclear weapons are essentially signing their death warrants. No amount of “security guarantees” that the United States and South Korea might be willing to give to the Kim regime are going to match the guarantees that come with actually possessing a credible, albeit small, nuclear weapons arsenal. This latest news is seeming proof of that, as well as being proof of the fact that very little actually changed in Singapore. The fact that the President and his advisers are apparently surprised by this demonstrates just how naive they are, and does not bode well for our dealings with far more serious threats from nations such as Russia, China, and Iran.