Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Washington D.C.-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) today published satellite photos depicting what appear to be facilities on the North Korean side of the demilitarized zone capable of launching ballistic missiles, well within range of targets in South Korea. The center identified a total of 13 sites suitable for short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, saying there may be as many as 20.

The report, prepared by CSIS’s Beyond Parallel program, dedicated to studying Korea, provides deep details on one of the bases, Sakkanmol Missile Operating Base, which is about 50 miles (85 km) north of the border. The report says the site contains short-range ballistic missiles but could easily host medium-range missiles. There are military housing and some agricultural operations nearby, but the nearby mountains are otherwise uninhabited. The underground facilities have entrances protected by rock-and-earth berms, and it is not clear from the photographs whether they are connected by tunnels.

Government representatives and other experts differ on the significance of these findings, however.

“The CSIS report does a great job identifying missile operating bases that analysts have long suspected. The fact that they have been maintained and improved,” said nuclear expert Vipin Narang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “however, does not mean North Korea is cheating or deceiving the United States—Kim said he would mass produce ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads in his New Year’s Day speech this year, and that is exactly what he is doing.”

President Trump has repeatedly said publicly that North Korea is ceasing to be a nuclear threat, but several intelligence reports, some corroborated by The Washington Post, have indicated that the country’s nuclear weapons program continues.

Several United States defense officials told the press that the fact that North Korea has conducted no nuclear tests in many months should be considered a positive development. “North Korea has continued its ballistic missile program at a number of bases but it’s significant that they have not tested one in nearly a year,” one U.S. official said. “We need to give the diplomats time and space to work.”

“It looks as if it is a political charade, and it’s a dangerous one,” NBC News reports of Barry McCaffrey, a retired U.S. General. “In the short term, North Korea is the most consequential threat to U.S. national security we’re facing […] They have nuclear weapons, they have delivery systems, they are not going to denuclearize. So I think the outcome of all of this is we’re loosening the economic constraints on these people and we’re kidding ourselves.”

A spokesperson for the South Korean presidential administration, Kim Eui-kyeom, rejected the idea that the North Koreans were engaging in deception or that the published photos revealed any new concerns. “North Korea has never promised to shut down this missile base,” Kim Eui-kyeom said. “It has never signed any agreement, any negotiation that makes shutting down missile bases mandatory.”

In a summit in Singapore last June with United States President Donald Trump, North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un agreed to “denuclearization” of the peninsula but did not commit to a specific timeline. At that time, President Trump temporarily halted exercises that the U.S. military had been performing with South Korean forces in exchange for a similar halt in North Korean nuclear testing. When these exercises resumed a few days ago, North Korean state media called it a violation of an agreement between Kim and the South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

North Korea has also withdrawn from a second summit that had been planned for next week in New York with U.S. Secretary of State Mark Pompeo.