- North Korea is believed to have started dismantling rocket launching and testing facilities in a major US victory after what have been fraught, slow-moving talks.
- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un personally promised President Donald Trump these sites would get taken down, so this could go a long way toward building confidence.
- The sites are key – and not just because Trump and Kim talked about them. They represent major friction points that could send the US and North Korea spiraling back toward war.
- North Korea still has a long way to go toward denuclearization.
- Virtually every other area of cooperation with Pyongyang has gone poorly, even insultingly, for the US.
North Korea has reportedly started dismantling rocket launching and testing facilities that President Donald Trump has said it agreed to in an off-the-books deal, and it’s a major US victory in what have been fraught, slow-moving talks.
Following the Singapore summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the two sides released a joint statement that contained weak and vague language around denuclearization, much to the dismay of North Korea watchers hoping for concrete action.
More than a month since the summit, the US has kept its end of the agreement, but only on Monday did the West get any indication that North Korea was holding its end.
Satellite imagery reviewed by 38 North, a website that covers North Korea, suggests North Korea is dismantling key parts of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, where Kim has presided over the launch of rockets meant to put satellites in orbit.
So far, a rail-based site for transporting the rockets and a vertical engine testing stand have been dismantled, 38 North reports.
In absolute terms, this represents only a tiny fraction of North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure. But the action there has key components that may give cause for hope.
These sites are vital
North Korea, in past negotiations with the US, has proved extremely lawyerly and adept at finding loopholes in its agreements.
In 2012, when Kim had just taken power, the US under Obama negotiated a freeze on missile testing with North Korea. Later, North Korea announced it would instead launch a rocket intended to carry a satellite into orbit.
Satellite launch vehicles are not missiles. They deliver a satellite into orbit, rather than an explosive payload to a target.
But both satellite launch vehicles and missiles use rocket engines to propel themselves into space, meaning that working on one is much the same as working on the other.
The US, troubled by this obvious betrayal of the spirit of the agreement, then exited the deal.
By removing the rail infrastructure to set up satellite vehicle launches, North Korea may have signalled it won’t look to exploit the same loopholes that have wrecked past deals.
At Sohae, where cranes have been spotted tearing down an engine testing stand, the North Koreans have previously worked to develop engines for their intercontinental ballistic missiles.
ICBMs threaten the US homeland in a way that could fray US alliances in Asia and eventually even unseat the US as a dominant power in the region. As Business Insider previously reported, freezing North Korea’s ICBM program has been a key focus of the Pentagon for years.
Only a small amount of actual work has taken place in dismantling the sites, but the significance of the sites, and their place in Trump and Kim’s budding relationship, gives reason for hope.
So far, North Korea has dragged its feet even on simple tasks,like returning some remains of US troops killed in the Korean War, despite promising immediate action.
Since the Singapore summit, satellite imagery has picked up signs that North Korea may actually have advanced its nuclear and missile programs. When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited North Korea recently, Kim didn’t meet him and instead toured a potato farm.
Kim sent Trump a nice letter in mid-July, but it contained no specifics on the US’s declared goal of denuclearization.
Trump said he negotiated the closing of these facilities with Kim after the joint declaration was signed, but North Korea waited over a month before delivering.
During that time, Trump repeatedly stressed that he believed North Korea would follow through based on his personal read of Kim’s personality.
In that way, North Korea has kept its direct promise to Trump and demonstrated, for perhaps the first time, a real willingness to scale back the key parts of its missile system.
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