Movement at North Korea ICBM plant viewed as missile-related, South says

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Movement at North Korea ICBM plant viewed as missile-related, South says


WASHINGTON/SEOUL (Reuters) – New activities have been detected at a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles plant, South Korean media said on Thursday, as U.S. President Donald Trump said he would be very disappointed if Pyongyang rebuilt a rocket site.

FILE PHOTO: Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) are driven past the stand with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and other high-ranking officials during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of the country’s founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo

Movement of cargo vehicles was spotted recently around a factory at Sanumdong in Pyongyang, which produced North Korea’s first intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching the United States, South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo and Donga Ilbo newspapers reported, citing lawmakers briefed by the National Intelligence Service on Tuesday.

Spy chief Suh Hoon told the lawmakers he viewed the activity as missile-related, the JoongAng Ilbo said. It quoted Suh as saying North Korea continued to run its uranium enrichment facility at the main Yongbyon nuclear complex after the first summit between Trump and its leader, Kim Jong Un, in June in Singapore.

The reports came after the leaders’ second summit in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi broke down last week over differences on the limits North Korea was ready to put on its nuclear program and how willing the U.S. was to ease sanctions.

The Sanumdong factory produced the Hwasong-15 ICBM, which can fly more than 13,000 km (8,080 miles). After its test flight in late 2017, North Korea declared the completion of its “state nuclear force,” before pursuing talks with South Korea and the United States last year.

South Korea’s presidential office and defense ministry declined to confirm the reports on Sanumdong, saying they are closely monitoring North Korea’s activities together with the United States.

There was no immediate response from the U.S. State Department.

On Tuesday, two U.S. think tanks and Seoul’s spy agency said work was underway to restore part of the North’s Sohae rocket launch site that Kim, at the Singapore summit, vowed to dismantle.

“I would be very disappointed if that were happening,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office, when asked if North Korea was breaking a promise.

“It’s a very early report. We’re the ones that put it out. But I would be very, very disappointed in Chairman Kim, and I don’t think I will be, but we’ll see what happens. We’ll take a look. It’ll ultimately get solved.”

Imagery from Planet Labs Inc. analyzed by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California showed activity at Sohae from Feb. 23 until Wednesday.

The Washington-based Stimson Center’s 38 North said photos from Wednesday showed the rail-mounted transfer building used to move rockets at the site was now complete, cranes had been removed from the launch pad and the transfer building moved to the end of the pad.

“But we don’t draw any conclusions from that besides they are restoring the facility,” Joel Wit of 38 North told Reuters. “There is no evidence to suggest anything more than that.”

A U.S. government source said the work at Sohae probably began before the summit, which was preceded by lower-level talks in February.

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Some analysts see the work at Sohae as aimed at pressing Washington to agree to a deal, rather than as a definite move to resume tests.

The U.S. government source, who did not want to be named, said North Korea’s plan to rebuild at the site could have been designed to offer a demonstration of good faith by conspicuously stopping again if a summit pact was struck, while furnishing a sign of defiance or resolve if the meeting failed.

Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, has warned of new sanctions if North Korea does not scrap its weapons program.

There have been signs across Asia that Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea has sprung leaks.

In a new sanctions breach, three South Korean companies were found to have brought in more than 13,000 tons of North Korean coal, worth 2.1 billion won ($2 million) since 2017, by making it out to have been produced in China and Vietnam, South Korea said. The Hanoi summit’s breakdown, and Bolton’s sanctions threat, raise questions about the future of the dialogue Trump has pursued.

North Korea’s state television aired a 78-minute documentary late on Wednesday showing a stone-faced Bolton during an expanded meeting in Hanoi, while Trump and other U.S. participants were all smiles.

But it focused on showing a cordial mood between Trump and Kim after the summit ended, indicating Pyongyang was not about to walk away from negotiations, experts say.

Democrat Ed Markey, ranking member of the Senate East Asia Subcommittee, expressed concern about the activity at Sohae, a site he said Trump had used to argue his approach toward Kim was working.

FILE PHOTO: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un makes his way to board a train to depart for North Korea at Dong Dang railway station in Vietnam, March 2, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

“North Korea’s apparent work at this launch site raises the troubling possibility that yet again Kim Jong Un is more interested in garnering concessions than conducting serious, good faith efforts to denuclearize,” the senator said.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday he hoped to send a delegation to North Korea in the coming weeks but had “no commitment yet”.

North Korea’s official media lauded Kim’s Vietnam trip but its vice foreign minister, Choe Son Hui, warned Kim might lose his willingness to pursue a deal.

Reporting by Jeff Mason and David Brunnstrom; additional reporting by Mark Hosenball, David Alexander and Tim Ahmann in WASHINGTON and Hyonhee Shin and Joyce Lee in SEOUL; Editing by Michael Perry and Clarence Fernandez



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