North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspects the long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 in this undated image. Photo: KCNA via Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspects the long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 in this undated image. Photo: KCNA via Reuters

At a time when the diplomatic outlook is unclear following the failure of last week’s North Korea-US summit in Hanoi, US think tanks and South Korean analyses indicate that work has restarted at a satellite launch site in North Korea.

Influential North Korea-specialized think tank 38 North, citing a South Korean intelligence briefing, produced an analysis of rebuilding work underway at the Sohae Satellite Launch Station at Tongchang-ri in the country’s northwest.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had pledged to dismantle the facility – which can test missile engines while hefting satellites into orbit using dual-use rocket technology – at the first US-North Korean summit held in Singapore last June. According to 38 North, the dismantling work halted last August, and between February 6 and March 2, work recommenced.

US think tank CSIS also produced commercial satellite imagery showing that work had recommenced on a rail-mounted, rocket-transport facility at the site.

Given that the Hanoi summit took place on February 27-28, the timing of the revelations by the think tanks and by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service is sensitive.

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Following the failure of both parties at the Hanoi summit to broker a deal, the next diplomatic steps to resolve the peninsula nuclear issue, to progress a nascent peace process, and to upgrade relations between Washington and Pyongyang, are far from clear.

However, on Monday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking in Washington, made it clear he was hoping for future talks.

“I am hopeful, although I have no commitment yet, that we will be back at it, that I’ll have a team in Pyongyang in the next couple weeks,” Pompeo said. “I’m continuing to work to find those places where there’s a shared interest.”

Pyongyang has not yet responded to Pompeo’s outreach – at least, not publicly – but a “shared interest” may exist, albeit to a lesser than a greater degree.

Uranium: The deal killer?

At the summit, North Korea offered to dismantle its key nuclear facility at Yongbyon, under the gaze of international verifiers, in return for relief on sanctions imposed from 2016. US President Donald Trump suggested that North Korea wanted all sanctions lifted, which may have been a slip of the tongue – but is largely irrelevant, as the post-2016 sanctions are widely seen as the most forceful ones.

However, Trump’s team was holding out for disclosure of, and action on, all North Korean nuclear sites and possibly on its chemical and biological weapon facilities. In addition to its main plutonium processing site at Yongbyon, the North has a far more secretive uranium enrichment facility.

The latter facility seems highly strategic to North Korea: It has already killed one high-profile deal. In 2002, George W Bush administration officials presented North Korean officials with what they said was evidence of a secret uranium-enrichment program.

That revelation proved to be the death knell of the already troubled 1994 “Agreed Framework,” brokered by the Bill Clinton administration. Under that deal, North Korea would cease processing plutonium, in exchange for fuel and a light-water nuclear reactor, to be provided by the international community.

Subsequently, in 2010, a defiant North Korea showed off components of its uranium-based program to international guests. Still, however problematic the uranium enrichment facility is, one expert said Pyongyang just might give it up.

“My understanding is that North Korea is willing to give up fissile material production facilities but not actual warheads,” said Go Myong-hyun, a North Korea expert at the Asan Institute, a think tank in Seoul. Pyongyang could cap production “as they have more than enough for warheads, so they might be willing to bargain,” he added.

The key issue for talks, Go believes, is not the activity at Sohae – whether that be routine work or a message aimed at Washington – but Kim’s ongoing moratorium on nuclear and missile tests, which held throughout 2018.

“We don’t know exactly what the changes at Sohae are, we need more information,” he said. “I think North Korea is going to keep their test freeze in order not to provoke Trump. I think they are still committed to solving this through dialog. I don’t think we will see major provocations.”

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