Activity at North Korean plant would be ‘very disappointing’ if nuclear related, says Trump
Movement of cargo vehicles has been spotted recently around a factory at Sanumdong in Pyongyang
Washington/Seoul — New activity has been detected at a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles plant, South Korean media says, as US President Donald Trump says he would be very disappointed if Pyongyang rebuilt a rocket site.
Movement of cargo vehicles has been spotted around a factory at Sanumdong in Pyongyang, which produced North Korea’s first intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the US, South Korea’s Joong Ang Ilbo and Donga Ilbo newspapers reported, citing MPs briefed by the National Intelligence Service.
Spy chief Suh Hoon told the MPs he viewed the activity as missile-related, 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 programme and how willing the US was to ease sanctions.
The Sanumdong factory produced the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile, which can fly more than 13,000km. 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 US last year.
South Korea’s presidential office and defence ministry declined to confirm the reports on Sanumdong, saying they were closely monitoring North Korea’s activities together with the US. There was no immediate response from the US state department.
On Tuesday, two US think-tanks and Seoul’s spy agency said work was under way 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.”
White House national security adviser John Bolton told Fox News in an interview that Trump was open to further talks with North Korea over denuclearisation.
“The president’s obviously open to talking again. We’ll see when that might be scheduled or how it might work out,” he said.
Bolton also said it was too soon to make a determination on the reports of North Korea's missile activities.
“We have a lot of ways of getting information,” he said. “We’re going to study the situation carefully. As the president said, it would be very, very disappointing if they were taking this direction.”
Imagery from Planet Labs analysed by the Centre for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California showed activity at Sohae from February 23 until Wednesday.
The Washington-based Stimson Centre’s 38 North said photos from Wednesday showed the rail-mounted transfer building used to move rockets at the site was complete, cranes had been removed from the launch pad and the transfer building moved to the end of the pad.
Restoring the facility
“But we don’t draw any conclusions from that besides they are restoring the facility,” Joel Wit of 38 North said. “There is no evidence to suggest anything more than that.”
A US government source said the work at Sohae probably began before the summit, which was preceded by lower-level talks in February.
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 US 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.
Bolton had earlier warned of new sanctions if North Korea does not scrap its weapons programme.
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 ($2m) 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 on Wednesday showing a stone-faced Bolton during a meeting in Hanoi, while Trump and other US participants were all smiles. But it focused on showing a cordial mood between Trump and Kim as the summit ended, indicating Pyongyang was not about to walk away from negotiations, experts say.
But in a return to a more usual, strident tone in North Korea’s state media, the KCNA news agency criticiced new small-scale military exercises that the US and South Korea plan to hold instead of a large-scale spring exercise they have called off.
The news agency said the drills would be a “violent violation” of agreements signed between the US and North Korea as well as between the two Koreas.
The US and South Korean militaries said last week that they would not carry out a large-scale spring joint military exercises, replacing it with smaller-scale ones.