SEOUL, South Korea — A U.S. research group says North Korea has started dismantling key facilities at its main satellite launch site in what appears to be a step toward fulfilling a commitment made by leader Kim Jong Un at his summit with President Donald Trump in June.
An official from South Korea’s presidential office on Tuesday said Seoul has also been detecting dismantlement activities at North Korea’s Sohae launch site but did not specify what the North was supposedly taking apart.
While the official said such moves could have a “positive effect” on the North’s denuclearization, analysts say such steps wouldn’t reduce North Korea’s military capabilities unless the country dismantles the whole site.
The North Korea-focused 38 North website said commercial satellite images between July 20 and 22 indicate the North began dismantling key facilities at the site. The facilities being razed or disassembled include a rocket engine test stand used to develop liquid-fuel engines for ballistic missiles and space-launch vehicles and a rail-mounted processing building where space launch vehicles were assembled before being moved to the launch pad, according to the report.
“Since these facilities are believed to have played an important role in the development of technologies for the North’s intercontinental ballistic missile program, these efforts represent a significant confidence building measure on the part of North Korea,” analyst Joseph Bermudez wrote in the report.
Lee Choon Geun, a missile expert at South Korea’s Science and Technology Policy Institute, said the North is giving up little in dismantling the rocket engine test site when it seems clear the country is satisfied with the current design of long-range weapons. However, Lee said that the supposed move to dismantle the rail-mounted processing building was more notable as it potentially indicated to broader dismantlement activities at the site.
“If North Korea goes further and dismantle the entire Sohae site, that would meaningfully reduce the country’s long-range missile capability by eliminating a facility where it could fire multiple ICBMs in succession,” Lee said. “The North can also fire ICBMs from transporter erector launchers, but their technology with these vehicles isn’t stable.”
After his summit with Kim in Singapore on June 12, Trump said he was told by Kim that the North was “already destroying a major missile engine testing site” without identifying which site. The leaders concluded their summit by declaring their vague aspirational goal of moving toward a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, but there’s lingering doubts on whether Kim would ever agree to fully give up the nuclear weapons he may see as a stronger guarantee of his survival that whatever security assurances the United States can provide.
Kim in late 2017 declared his nuclear weapons and missile program was complete, following a torrent of nuclear and missile tests that include the detonation of a purported thermonuclear warhead and flight tests of three developmental ICBMs potentially capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. North Korea in May invited foreign media to observe a destruction of tunnels at its nuclear testing ground, weeks after Kim declared the site’s mission as finished. However, the North did not open the process to outside experts capable of validating what had been destroyed.
The South Korean presidential official, who didn’t want to be named, citing office rules, said the supposed dismantlement activities shows the North is moving gradually.
“We need further analysis to figure out why the North didn’t turn the dismantlement activities into an event and whether the country is trying to control the speed of the process to maintain a pace it wants,” he said.