The existence of more than a dozen supposedly secret North Korean missile bases should come as a surprise to nobody – certainly not the United States or South Korea.
Both have access to military intelligence that far exceeds what is available in the private sector.
If anything, the latest findings of a Washington think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), only underscore the vast, messy complexities of stalled denuclearization talks, and raise further questions about the true impact of the historic June 12 summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The CSIS report used satellite imagery to locate the site of “undeclared” North Korean missile bases, notably Sakkanmol, an operational missile base equipped with short-range ballistic missiles that could “easily accommodate” medium-range ballistic warheads.
The New York Times (NYT) first reported the CSIS imagery with the headline “In North Korea, Missile Bases Suggest a Great Deception.”
The Blue House said Tuesday the existence of the missile sites was “nothing new” and rejected the use of the word “deception” by the Times and similar framing of the story by other news outlets, including CNN, citing a risk of undermining sensitive talks.
“Talk of ‘secrets’ or ‘undeclared’ or ‘deception’ can possibly bring misunderstanding at this moment when there is a need for US North Korea dialogue, because it can block the talks and undermine the opening of negotiation,” the Blue House official said.
The official said North Korea had not previously pledged to close the Sakkanmol Missile Base, the focus of the CSIS report, saying “There had been no treaty or negotiation that mandated closing the missile base.”
It’s true that the North Korean missile program was never included in the Singapore statement signed by both leaders, and would not appear to breach any other agreements signed by Pyongyang.
In the vaguely worded agreement, Trump and Kim pledged to build a “lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula” and to “work toward complete denuclearization” of the peninsula.
Pyongyang is not violating that pledge by continuing to operate missile sites. In fact, most analysts agree Kim would be foolish to dismantle active facilities without a signed agreement.
In his New Year’s address, the North Korean leader called on his nation to bolster its nuclear deterrent by mass producing missiles and nuclear warheads.
Kim is just doing exactly what he promised.
From the moment the June 12 statement was signed, experts voiced skepticism about the lack of specifics and questioned whether the deal would yield any tangible results.
Unsurprisingly, five months of sporadic talks have led to little, if any, progress on the key issue of denuclearization. This is largely due to vastly different views in Pyongyang and Washington over how to achieve it.
North Korea has long viewed denuclearization as a series of reciprocal steps taken over a long period of time, with both sides making concessions along the way.
The Trump administration insists on “complete denuclearization” of North Korea and the elimination of its ballistic missile programs upfront – a nonstarter for a nation that remains deeply suspicious of the outside world and would never leave itself strategically vulnerable simply for the promise of economic gain.
North Korean rhetoric has noticeably sharpened recently. State media warned again this month that Pyongyang might be forced to resume nuclear development if sanctions are not eased.
US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, and other Trump administration officials, have repeatedly stated North Korea has done nothing to warrant the economic relief it demands.
North Korean media has called US actions “conniving psychological tactics.”
What little trust may have developed this year between the two longtime enemies seems to be quickly evaporating, as evidenced by North Korea’s abrupt cancellation of talks last week in New York between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his negotiating counterpart, former North Korean spymaster Kim Yong Chol.
But even as recently as last week, President Trump said there is “no rush” and reiterated the misleading claims that his historic diplomacy has neutralized the North Korean nuclear and missile threat.
In reality, Kim’s arsenal remains as potent as ever – albeit far less public.
This fact is well known to US intelligence, and has been acknowledged by members of the Trump administration, though not publicly by the President himself, who is known to favor optics over substance.
And in terms of optics, there has been a dramatic shift.
Keeping up appearances
As I witnessed first-hand on my 19th trip to North Korea in September, propaganda images celebrating Kim’s nuclear program no longer line the streets of Pyongyang. Intercontinental ballistic missiles notably did not roll through Kim Il Sung Square during a military parade to mark the nation’s 70th anniversary.
In May, we were invited to witness the destruction of tunnel entrances at North Korea’s only known nuclear test site, a largely cosmetic and reversible step, analysts said, perhaps aimed more at building President Trump’s confidence than achieving complete and irreversible denuclearization.
The strategy may be working for Kim, at least in terms of his relationship with the US President. Merely keeping his arsenal out of sight, and continuing a yearlong suspension of missile launches and nuclear tests, has thus far been enough to earn the praise of Trump, who has touted the Korean détente as a major foreign policy win and even claimed in September that he and Kim “fell in love.”
But an official with knowledge of the North Korean position on denuclearization told me last week that the political power shift in Washington after the midterms only reinforces existing North Korean concerns that Kim’s government would be left vulnerable if it agreed to denuclearize upfront, as the US insists, only to face a politically weakened Trump administration unable to deliver on its promises.
In other words, North Korea’s missiles and nuclear warheads are not going anywhere, anytime soon.
The latest developments only threaten to further erode this fragile relationship.