North Korea and the US remain at a dangerous crossroads. An illustration of nuclear missiles lined up with the North Korean flag. Photo: iStock

North Korea is apparently continuing the construction of ballistic missiles at the same time that generals from both sizes of the demilitarized zone met to reduce tensions along their heavily fortified frontier.

The developments suggest that while denuclearization – the key concern of the Washington administration – is not proceeding as anticipated, détente between Seoul and Pyongyang – a key goal of the Seoul administration – is.

There have been long been concerns among pro-alliance figures in both Seoul and Washington that North Korea seeks to drive a “wedge” between the two allies.

The Washington Post newspaper on Monday quoted un-named US intelligence sources, who cited satellite reconnaissance to say that activity was continuing at a site near the North Korean capital of Pyongyang that produces intercontinental ballistic missiles. The site, Sanumdong, is where the Hwasong 15 model was constructed – the missile that, tested last year, brings the US capital within range of North Korea’s strategic weapons.

The Post report follows earlier reports from US-based North Korea-monitoring website 38 North which produced satellite imagery indicating that activity continues at North Korea’s flagship nuclear complex, Yongbyon.

Conversely, last week, satellite images, also obtained by 38 North, showed that North Korea was dismantling facilities at its satellite-launching and rocket-engine test site, Seohae Launching Station. Also last week, North Korea handed over to the United States 55 sets of what are believed to be the remains of American soldiers killed in North Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War.

Both these goodwill steps were promised to US President Donald Trump when he met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, during their landmark summit in Singapore in June.

However , the first (and only) high-level, bilateral meeting to be held thus far on denuclearization, between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and close Kim confidante and long-time regime insider Kim Yong-chol  in Pyongyang early this  month  ended in acrimony. After the meeting, the North Korean side accused the US of “gangster-like” demands.

It is not clear when – or indeed if – a denuclearization process that is mutually-agreed upon by both Pyongyang and Washington will get underway.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, generals from both Koreas met for all-day talks at the inter-Korean truce village of Panmunjom in the DMZ as the long-process of confidence building continues.

The two sides agreed at the end of the day to further discuss disarming troops at Panmunjom; the withdrawal of infantry guard posts from within the DMZ; and the joint excavation of war remains in the DMZ, according to a Yonhap news agency report.

However, no press release was distributed, and the results of the lengthy talks appeared sparse.

Troops at Panmunjeom are only armed with pistols, under the terms of the 1953 armistice agreement, and there were no concrete details on the guardpost withdrawals or on the excavations. Those details will be hammered out at follow-up, working-level talks, Yonhap reported.

There had been speculation that the agenda would include tension reduction mechanisms for the Northern Limit Line – the disputed maritime border in the Yellow Sea that has been the scene of multiple, fatal naval clashes.

At last month’s military talks there had been a more substantive outcome, with the two Koreas agreeing restore cross-border military communication links.

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