Report: North Korea is operating undisclosed missile bases

Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un talking in Capella Hotel, during the Singapore summit.

While President Trump is publicly optimistic about negotiations with Kim Jong Un, a new study from the Beyond Parallel program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that the North Koreans are deceiving the US by offering to dismantle one of their launch sites while they are maintaining and improving others they have not disclosed, the New York Times reports. 

After his June summit with Un, President Trump famously tweeted, “there is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea” and later said that he and Un “fell in love”. On Wednesday, at a news conference, Trump spoke of the challenging negotiations. “We are in no rush. The sanctions are on. The missiles have stopped. The rockets have stopped. The hostages are home.”

According to the Times, North Korea has failed to give the US a list of their  nuclear sites, weapons, production facilities and missile bases, telling Secretary of State Pompeo that doing so would be the equivalent of providing a “target list”. Providing this list would be the first step towards denuclearization. CNBC reports that negotiators have also not been able to convince the North Koreans to promise to stop deploying their arsenal.

The Washington think tank report says satellite images have revealed at least 13 out of 20 suspected missile bases that the North Koreans have not disclosed. These missile operating bases “can be used for all classes of ballistic missile from short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) up to and including intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)”. The researchers and authors, Joseph Bermudez, Victor Cha and Lisa Collins, point out that, while the bases are not launch facilities, in an emergency, missiles could be launched from them.

The bases, which the authors say “would presumably have to be subject to declaration, verification, and dismantlement in any final and fully verifiable denuclearization deal”, are located in three bands across North Korea. A map provided in the report labels the bands “strategic”, “operational”, and “tactical”. The Tactical band is closest to the DMZ. These sites are capable of housing ballistic missiles that would be able to strike anywhere in the US.

The CSIS report highlights the Sakkanmol Missile Operating Base, which is 50 miles from the DMZ and 80 miles from Seoul, South Korea, where American troops are based. The authors state Sakkmanmol “houses a unit equipped with SRBMs but could easily accommodate more capable medium-range ballistic missiles.”

“It looks like they’re trying to maximize their capabilities,” Joseph S. Bermudez Jr.,a co-author of the report and a veteran analyst of satellite images of North Korea, said in an interview. “Any missile at these bases can take a nuclear warhead.”

“The level of effort that North Korea has invested in building these bases and dispersing them is impressive,” he added. “It’s very logical from a survival point of view.”

New York Times

Satellite images revealed agricultural activities, a greenhouse, barracks, a cultural hall and network of underground facilities protected by berms and revetments. The berms are formed from the soil excavated from the tunnels and are designed to protect the facilities from aerial attacks. The researchers say that the size of the entrances and the amount of soil removed indicates that these tunnels could easily house all of the unit’s
transporter-erector-launchers or mobile-erector-launchers, reload vehicles, other technical vehicles, and supplies. The authors also point out that the revetments at this facility are large enough to support an emergency missile launch.

With multiple undisclosed missile operating sites like Sakkmanmol across North Korea, experts worry that President Trump’s eagerness to make a deal will lead to him making a bad one.

“It’s not like these bases have been frozen,” Mr. Cha, the leader of the team that studied the images, said in an interview. “Work is continuing. What everybody is worried about is that Trump is going to accept a bad deal — they give us a single test site and dismantle a few other things, and in return they get a peace agreement” that formally ends the Korean War.

Mr. Trump, he said, “would then declare victory, say he got more than any other American president ever got, and the threat would still be there.”

New York Times

The BBC points out that the lack of specificity surrounding the agreement made at the Singapore Summit is now “coming back to haunt these talks”. With no actual agreement about what complete denulcearization looks like and North Korea moving forward with its missile program, the Trump administration’s negotiations are more challenging than ever.

A State Department spokesman responded to the findings with a written statement suggesting that the government believed the sites must be dismantled: “President Trump has made clear that should Chairman Kim follow through on his commitments, including complete denuclearization and the elimination of ballistic missile programs, a much brighter future lies ahead for North Korea and its people.” A spokesman for the C.I.A. declined to comment.

New York Times

CNBC reports that North Korea cancelled a meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week and that North Korean state media says that US/South Korean military drills violated an agreement that was to lower tensions on the peninsula. It also appears that sanctions are collapsing, according to the Times, as North Korea is resuming trade with Russia and China based on its promises of denuclearization to the US.

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