North Korea may be poised to flush a year’s worth of diplomacy with the United States down the drain as it apparently prepares for a missile test on its eastern coast.
International attention is concentrated on the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in Tongchang-ri, North Pyongan Province, and a military plant in Sanumdong on the outskirts of Pyongyang, where signs of resumed activity were observed over the last week by nuclear experts and intelligence officials in the United States and South Korea.
The activities mirror that of North Korea’s earlier missile launches - such as the test firing of its Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in November 2017 - in which rockets were built at the factory in Sanumdong and then transported to Tongchang-ri, where they were assembled and launched.
“Military intelligence authorities in South Korea and the United States are closely coordinating in our observations of the Tongchang-ri launch site,” a defense official in Seoul said on Monday, effectively acknowledging the risk of a provocation by North Korea close on the heels of a failed second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi, Vietnam, last month.
The testing of a missile could end more than a year’s worth of rapprochement between Seoul and Washington and return the situation on the peninsula to the state of tension that prevailed before Pyongyang’s participation in South Korea’s Winter Olympics last year.
Following his walkout from the Hanoi summit, Trump told reporters that Kim had promised he would not test rockets, missiles or “anything having to do with nuclear.”
The president had repeatedly lauded the lack of tests from Pyongyang last year as a sign that his policy of engagement with the regime was working.
John Bolton, White House national security adviser, refused to comment on satellite images showing recent North Korean activities on a Sunday news program on ABC, but said that the administration is “unblinkingly” aware of what is happening in the North and doesn’t “have any illusions about what [Pyongyang’s] capabilities are.”
Bolton said the United States was prepared to continue engaging North Korea - perhaps with a third summit after “some time” - he implied that any attempt by Pyongyang to improve its negotiating position with missile-related provocations would not work since the Trump administration would not fall for an “action-for-action ploy.”
“The leverage is on our side right now, not on North Korea’s,” he added.
That idea of North Korea resuming missile launches to push the United States into accepting its position of a gradual path to denuclearization has been echoed by many analysts who doubt that these moves would translate into an actual test firing.
Cho Seong-ryoul, a former leading researcher at the South’s Institute for National Security Strategy and a noted North Korea watcher, raised the possibility that the North could be rebuilding missile launch pad structures it partially tore down last year in order to build momentum for a more symbolic demolition to demonstrate its sincerity to the United States.
Pyongyang’s toppling of a cooling tower in 2007 at its plutonium reactor in the Yongbyon nuclear complex had a similar publicity purpose at the time, Cho said.
The expert added that a more likely explanation was that the North is feigning a missile launch to press Washington for a renegotiation and would not go forward with the act since too much is at stake.
Another possibility, according to a South Korean government source who asked not to be named, is that the North is preparing to actually launch a satellite equipped with technology recently brought in from friendly countries like China.
“The last time the North shot up a satellite was in 2016 with the launch of the Kwangmyongsong-4,” the source said.
“Since then, North Korea has been focusing on obtaining satellite technology through unofficial cooperation with other countries or by hacking, and latest intelligence suggests they have completed a new reconnaissance satellite.”
North Korea maintains a distinction between military testing of its ballistic missiles and that of its satellites, though nuclear experts abroad say the fact that the same type of rockets are used for both purposes makes that difference hollow.
UN Security Council Resolution 1718 - approved unanimously by all members in 2006 - forbids any type of rocket launches from the North, be it for satellite or missile purposes.
But if the launch is related to a satellite and not an actual missile, like the Hwasong-15 ICBM that is capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, China and Russia may not go along with further sanctions on the North, said Kim Young-soo, an international relations professor at Sogang University.
Officials of the North’s Munitions Industry Department, like its director, Thae Jong-su, were spotted greeting Kim at Pyongyang Station on his return from Vietnam last Tuesday, suggesting the department - which oversees production of armaments like missiles - may have something to do with Kim’s future plans in his tug-of-war with the United States.