Work seen as important first step after pledge made at summit with Donald Trump
North Korea has taken the first steps towards honouring its commitment to nuclear disarmament by starting to dismantle its main missile-engine test site, according to an analysis of satellite images.
The findings have not yet received official backing from the US or South Korean governments, even though the dismantling would be a huge boost for Donald Trump’s claim that he was right to engage with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, at a historic summit in Singapore in June.
Pictures from the 38 North thinktank show the engine test stand at the Sohae satellite launching station being taken apart. The work started at some point in the past two weeks, after the last visit to North Korea by the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.
North Korea has also started dismantling a rail-mounted building at Sohae where workers assembled space launch vehicles before moving them to the launchpad, according to Joseph Bermudez Jr of 38 North.
His analysis is based on a comparison of satellite photos taken on Friday and Sunday. He claimed they showed North Korea had taken “an important first step toward fulfilling a commitment [towards the denuclearisation pledge] made by Kim Jong-un”.
Trump is badly in need of evidence that his brand of unorthodox diplomacy with some of the US’s most long-established foes can produce results.
On Friday, Pompeo complained to the UN security council that North Korea was evading oil sanctions by running covert ship-to-ship transfers. He insisted no sanctions should be lifted until complete, verifiable disarmament had taken place. Pompeo privately felt his last visit to North Korea had been a frustrating failure, even though he called for patience.
Some Republican senators had also started to complain that China, angry with the US over trade tariffs, had discouraged North Korea from sticking to nuclear disarmament commitments made at the summit. Critics complained that Trump had been naive to invest so much importance in his personal chemistry with the North Korean leader given the country’s record of reneging on commitments to disarm.
The South Korean foreign minister, Kang Kyung-wha, at a briefing in London, said its reports suggested North Korea was preparing for disarmament in return for a lifting of economic sanctions.
The satellite image analysis leaves it unclear whether North Korea planned to demolish the entire Sohae site, which has been vital to its space programme. Other important facilities such as fuel bunkers, a main assembly building and the gantry tower appear untouched.
Jenny Town, the managing editor of 38 North, which is based at the Stimson Center in Washington DC, said the work at Sohae could be an important move to keep negotiations going.
“This could – and that’s a big could – mean that North Korea is also willing to forego satellite launches for the time being as well as nuclear and missile tests. This distinction has derailed diplomacy in the past,” she said.
North Korea, in a media report last week, criticised South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, for not actively seeking to help Pyongyang in getting sanctions lifted. Ending the sanctions is Kim’s chief concern as the regime focuses on building its economy. South Korea, leading the push for greater dialogue, is seeking exemption from US sanctions to increase trade with the North.
Kang said: “Given that talks between the US and North and between the South and North should go together, South Korea and the US need to communicate so that these talks are mutually reinforcing.”
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