This satellite image courtesy of Airbus Defense and Space and 38 North dated July 22, 2018 shows the apparent dismantling of facilities at the Sohae satellite launch site in North Korea. Photo: AFP/ PlÈiades © Cnes 2018, Distribution Airbus DS / Handout
This satellite image courtesy of Airbus Defense and Space and 38 North dated July 22, 2018 shows the apparent dismantling of facilities at the Sohae satellite launch site in North Korea. Photo: AFP/ PlÈiades © Cnes 2018, Distribution Airbus DS / Handout

North Korea is dismantling a satellite-launch and rocket-engine test site in a move that seems aimed at boosting confidence in Washington, where signs of frustration have reportedly appeared over the apparent lack of progress on denuclearization.

Authoritative, US-based website 38 North, which boasts a specialized focus on satellite data analysis of North Korea, announced the findings early on Tuesday, complete with photographs of the site, known as the Sohae Satellite Launching Station.

Facilities being dismantled include a “rail-mounted processing building — where space launch vehicles are prepared before moving them to the launch pad — and the nearby rocket engine test stand used to develop liquid-fuel engines for ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles,” 38 North reported.

“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,” 38 North said.

Honoring promise made to Trump

In June, during their landmark summit in Singapore, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un told US President Donald Trump – according to Trump himself – that he was preparing to dismantle a rocket-engine test site.

38 North’s findings appear to indicate that this process is underway.

Moreover, in other, unilateral goodwill moves made since the Singapore summit, North Korean state media has run flattering coverage and images of Trump. The nation has also canceled its annual series of anti-American rallies held between June and July – the months in which the Korean War respectively started (in 1950), and concluded (in 1953).

However, none of these steps are related to official denuclearization negotiations held between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his North Korean opposite number in denuclearization talks, Kim Yong-chol.

After the last meeting between the two in the first week of July – which was also the only high-level, bilateral meeting so far held since the Singapore summit – North Korean state media slammed Pompeo for his “gangster-like” demands.

This apparent ill feeling, plus multiple reports that work continues at North Korea’s major nuclear facilities, and a lagging momentum in the overall process have all raised questions over North Korea’s true commitment to denuclearization.

Moreover, unconfirmed news reports from Washington over the weekend indicate Trump has, privately, been frustrated by the lack of progress since his June meeting with Kim.

Against this backdrop, the North’s latest move stands out for a prominent reason.

Acceptance of US view on satellite-missile link?

In 2012, a promising deal was struck between the Barack Obama administration in Washington and the then-nascent Kim Jong-un regime in Pyongyang, which had taken power after the death of Kim Jong-il in 2011. However, that so-called “Leap Day” deal, on missile and nuclear test moratoriums, fell apart just weeks later when North Korea launched a satellite.

While Pyongyang insisted the satellite-launch rocket was a peaceful technology, Washington considered it a breach of faith, given that satellite-launch vehicles are dual-use technologies which share many features with inter-continental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs.

After the failure of this early attempt to generate bilateral goodwill, there were no more significant denuclearization initiatives on North Korea for the remaining years of the Obama government.

The fact that Pyongyang is now dismantling a satellite-launch site may signal acceptance of the US position that satellite and ICBM programs are inter-linked.

“Certainly, they are dual-use technologies,” said Dan Pinkston, a Seoul-based international relations expert at Troy University. “There are some things you’d do slightly differently for a space-launch vehicle and an ICBM, but if you have one, you have the knowledge for the other.”

Credibility still not established

Still, issues hang over the dismantlement steps at Sohae. Like the destruction of above-ground facilities and tunnel entrances at North Korea’s underground nuclear test-site at Punggye-ri in May, the steps being taken appear reversible.

“Are they going to abandon those assets or capabilities? It raises that question, as there is a lot of investment sunk into those projects,” Pinkston said. “Or, are they upgrading? In six months they could build a better facility.”

Neither of the two dismantlement processes, at Sohae and Punggye-ri, were overseen by professional international monitors. Nor has North Korea, as yet, made any apparent preparatory moves to join or rejoin international arms control treaties, such as the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, or the Missile Technology Control Regime.

The activities underway at Sohae, “are positive, in the sense that they are necessary,” Pinkston said. “But they are not sufficient to show full compliance with international norms.”

Seoul announces DMZ pullback gesture

Also on Tuesday, Seoul’s Ministry of National Defense announced that it would withdraw some guard posts inside the Demilitarized Zone on a trial basis, according to Yonhap news agency.

While heavy weapons are not permitted inside the DMZ – major assets such as armor and artillery are widely deployed on either side of it, by both sides – small infantry positions are maintained inside the 4-kilometer-wide strip that runs across the width of the peninsula.

During their summit in April, South Korean President Moon Jae-in had agreed with the North’s Kim to transform the DMZ into a “peace zone.”

The move follows recent attacks in North Korea state media on Moon’s efforts to play an intermediary role between Pyongyang and Washington. North Korean media has also renewed demands to return to North Korea a group of restaurants workers who apparently defected to the South in 2016.

Recent investigative reports by two South Korean media outlets have indicated that, in fact, the North Koreans were lured to the South, against their will, by Seoul’s National Intelligence Service.

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