North Korea appears to have started dismantling key facilities at its main satellite launch site in a step toward fulfilling a commitment made by leader Kim Jong Un at his summit with President Donald Trump in June.
While Pyongyang could be trying to build trust with Washington as they engage in talks to resolve the nuclear standoff, analysts say dismantling a few facilities at the site alone wouldn't realistically reduce North Korea's military capability or represent a material step toward denuclearization. And they expressed concern that the work is being done without verification.
The North Korea-focused 38 North website said commercial satellite images from July 20 to 22 indicate the North began dismantling key facilities at the Sohae launch site. The facilities being razed or disassembled include a rocket engine test stand used to develop liquid-fuel engines for ballistic missiles and space-launch vehicles and a rail-mounted processing building where space launch vehicles were assembled before being moved to the launch pad, according to the report. "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," analyst Joseph Bermudez wrote in the report.
An official from South Korea's presidential office said Tuesday that Seoul has also been detecting dismantlement activities at the Sohae launch site but did not specify what the North was supposedly taking apart. Other analysts said North Korea is giving up little in dismantling the rocket engine test site when it's clear the country is satisfied with its current design of long-range weapons and could easily build other similar facilities if needed in the future.
Adam Mount, a senior defense analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, said it's also troubling that the North has been apparently allowed to duck verification by unilaterally dismantling parts of its nuclear and missile facilities without the presence of international inspectors. In May, North Korea invited foreign journalists to observe the destruction of tunnels at its nuclear testing ground, but did not invite outside experts capable of certifying what had been destroyed.
With files from the Associated Press
With guest host Libby Denkmann
Jim Walsh, international security expert and senior research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program (SSP), a graduate-level research and educational program at MIT; he tweets @DrJimWalshMIT
Peter Brookes, senior fellow focusing on National Security Affairs at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Foreign Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative public policy think tank; he tweets @Brookes_Peter