Over the course of five months of negotiations with North Korea, President Donald Trump has said repeatedly that he has plenty of time to strike a nuclear deal with the country.
Meanwhile, Pyongyang has been secretly continuing to improve its missile program.
That’s the stunning, but perhaps not surprising, takeaway from a Monday report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, DC. Based on analysis of satellite imagery, the report’s authors found that North Korea had enhanced its ability to launch missiles from a base near South Korea’s border and capital, Seoul.
It shows that the Trump administration’s rosy talk of progress with Pyongyang may be premature at best, and dangerous at worst.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said he planned to make and deploy more missiles during his 2018 New Year’s Day speech and has continued to follow through on that plan, Vipin Narang, a nuclear expert at MIT, told me. “These are ... mostly short-range operating bases which he would be a fool to eliminate,” he added, “until and unless there is any deal.”
In other words, North Korea never said it would stop building weapons, including missiles that could or could not carry nuclear weapons. So it’s not that North Korea is deceiving the United States, in this case, but that Washington may be willfully ignoring Pyongyang’s own stated policy.
The report could complicate US-North Korea talks, five months after Trump and Kim met in Singapore for a historic summit. also another indication that North Korea remains a major threat to the United States and its regional allies — and may be an even bigger one since Trump and Kim’s summit.
What the report on North Korea’s missile base says
CSIS’s report focuses on the Sakkanmol missile base, an undeclared North Korean site about 50 miles north of the inter-Korean border that houses short-range missiles. Pyongyang could use those weapons to strike Seoul, around 80 miles away, leveling much of the city.
The 12 images in the report show entrances to the site’s underground areas that likely contain the missiles and trucks to transport them; defensives berms to protect the underground entrances from aerial attacks; housing for North Korean troops; and more. Many improvements were made before Kim Jong Un was in power, but his regime continues to keep the base fully operational while making infrastructure enhancements.
“As of November 2018, the base is active and being reasonably well-maintained by North Korean standards,” the report’s authors write. The reason for recent improvements is simple: to remain a military threat capable of deterring an invasion and fighting a major war.
“It looks like they’re trying to maximize their capabilities,” Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., a top analyst of satellite imagery of North Korea and a co-author of the report, told the New York Times on Monday. “Any missile at these bases can take a nuclear warhead,” he continued, which is scary since Pyongyang has an estimated 40 to 60 nuclear warheads.
In other words, the analysis shows that Trump’s North Korea problem is getting worse — not better.
“A ways to go”
The Trump administration admits North Korea has yet to agree to dismantle its nuclear arsenal.
“We can see we have still a ways to go to achieve the ultimate outcome with them,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters in August, after claiming that Kim agreed to denuclearize.
That’s unclear. The joint agreement Trump and Kim signed during June’s Singapore summit says North Korea “commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
But “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” is a phrase the North Koreans like to use a lot. Here’s what they mean by it: Pyongyang is willing to dismantle its nuclear program — if and only if South Korea also denuclearizes.
However, South Korea doesn’t actually have its own nukes. What it does have, though, is what’s called the US “nuclear umbrella.” That basically means that the US promises to defend South Korea from the North — up to and including with the use of US nuclear weapons. There are also currently 28,500 US troops currently stationed in South Korea to defend it from potential aggression from the North.
So what North Korea is essentially saying here is, “Sure, we’ll give up our nukes. Just as soon as you (Trump) withdraw all US military support for South Korea.” That is a very different thing from Kim committing to just unilaterally give up his entire nuclear arsenal while US troops remain in South Korea, where they could easily launch an invasion of North Korea the minute they surrender their nuclear weapons.
What’s more, the joint agreement mentions denuclearization in the third point. The first two are about establishing peace on the peninsula. The main way North Korea wants to do that is to have the US sign a non-binding peace declaration that basically says America promises never to attack North Korea. That would help give Kim the political space to wind down his nuclear program.
Trump promised Kim he would sign the declaration to end hostilities between the two countries in Singapore but has yet to follow through. It helps explain why both sides have reached an impasse in nuclear talks, culminating in a canceled meeting between Pompeo and his North Korean counterpart last week.
It was therefore unlikely that the US and North Korea would make progress any time soon. The new report definitely won’t help.