A US based think-tank , North 38, has released satellite images of North Korea’s Sohae Satellite Launching Station. The images indicate that North Korea has taken its first step to fulfil the pledge of denuclearization made to President Trump at the Singapore Summit.
The North Korean nuclear program has been a source of concern for the US and the international community for decades. Since January 2018, Pyongyang appeared to have softened its stance, initiating diplomatic meetings. On April 27th, North and South Korean leaders Kim Jong-Un and Moon Jae-In held a historic summit, the first in over a decade. The two nations announced that they had agreed to end the 60-year Korean War and signed the Panmunjom Declaration which agreed to denuclearise North Korea. A meeting was also arranged between the North Korean leader and the US President, the first of its kind.
However, North Korea reverted to a more aggressive stance by cancelling a meeting with South Korean officials. National Security Advisor John Bolton said that the United States was looking at a 2004 “Libya model” to denuclearise North Korea. Pyongyang responded that they would “no longer be interested” in dialogue if the US was trying to push for “unilateral nuclear abandonment.” It threatened a "nuclear-to-nuclear showdown". President Trump cancelled the summit on May 24th, due to Pyongyang’s “tremendous anger and open hostility”.
However, the historic Singapore Summit was back on for June 12th. The summit saw the two leaders agreeing to begin a diplomatic process to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” The denuclearization pledge taken had no time frame. President Trump continued to dismiss any skepticism regarding North Korea’s intentions to denuclearize.
The report released by 38 North indicated that North Korea has begun dismantling key facilities at the Sohae Launching Station which is DPRK’s main satellite launch facility since 2012. The facilities include the rail-mounted processing building and the rocket engine test stand. “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,” said Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., an expert on North Korea’s weapons programs.
However, it still seems unclear whether North Korea plans on razing the entire Sohae site in the country’s north-east, which has been vital to its space program. In satellite images, other important facilities like fuel bunkers, a main assembly building and the gantry tower remain untouched.
Even though the satellite images have indicated a step forward in the commitment made at Singapore, North Korea is yet to define what it meant by “ complete denuclearization”. For instance, would it would allow intrusive inspections by outside monitors to verify its actions? Many analysts say North Korea will not have started denuclearizing until it begins dismantling its nuclear weapons. It also has not announced if and when, it will dismantle missiles that it says can deliver nuclear warheads.
Sources from Washington released a report that Trump has vented his anger over a lack of immediate progress in North Korea. But a tweet from Trump on Monday said otherwise, “A Rocket has not been launched by North Korea in 9 months. Likewise, no Nuclear Tests. Japan is happy, all of Asia is happy. But the Fake News is saying, without ever asking me (always anonymous sources), that I am angry because it is not going fast enough. Wrong, very happy!”
Sources with close knowledge of happenings in DPRK have said, “If the US is unwilling to replace the armistice agreement that ended the Korean War with a permanent peace that would ensure the survival of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's regime, Pyongyang will likely not proceed further with denuclearization talks.”However, the establishment of a legally binding peace treaty would require the approval of two-thirds of the US Senate.
Furthermore, North Korea is exerting pressure on the US administration to begin lifting sanctions. They believe that they have upheld their side of the agreement by by freezing nuclear and missile testing, destroying one of their nuclear sites, and facilitating the upcoming repatriation of US service members' war remains.
Although China supports North Korea dismantling its nuclear program, it also fears that such a development would strengthen US power in the region. North Korea currently serves as a strategic buffer between China and South Korea; but without nukes it would not be a powerful buffer. Thus, the US, in dealing with North Korea, must be mindful of China’s economic leverage with DPRK. Refusing to deliver the US’s side of the agreement or angering the North Korean regime further could be an invitation for China to partake in the nuclear disarmament negotiations.
Our assessment is that although the satellite images released by North 38 indicate the dismantling of a key facility , it tells us very little about DPRK’s total commitment to the denuclearization process. As stated earlier,we believe that North Korea’s complete denuclearization is a phased process and will take more than a decade to achieve. We feel that for this move to be sustained in the long term, the US’s strategy needs to be well thought out - as opposed to Trump’s disruptive diplomacy.