Satellite images indicate North Korea has begun dismantling key facilities at a site used to develop engines for ballistic missiles, in a first step toward fulfilling a pledge made to US President Donald Trump at a June summit, reports a Washington-based think tank.
The images from 20 July showed work at the Sohae satellite launching station to dismantle a building used to assemble space-launch vehicles and a nearby rocket engine test stand used to develop liquid-fuel engines for ballistic missiles and space-launch vehicles, the 38 North think tank said.
“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,” it said in a report.
Trump told a news conference after his 12 June summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that Kim had promised that a major missile engine testing site would be destroyed very soon.
Trump did not identify the site, but a US official subsequently told Reuters that it was Sohae.
South Korea’s defence ministry said on Tuesday it plans to reduce guard posts and equipment along the demilitarised zone on its border with the north, the Yonhap news agency reported.
The 38 North report comes amid growing questions about North Korea’s willingness to live up to the commitments Kim made at the summit, particularly to work towards denuclearisation.
US officials have repeatedly said North Korea has committed to giving up a nuclear weapons program that now threatens the United States, but Pyongyang has offered no details as to how it might go about this.
Jenny Town, managing editor of 38 North, which is based at Washington’s Stimson Center, said the work at Sohae could be an important move to keep negotiations going.
“This could (and that’s a big could) mean that North Korea is also willing to forgo satellite launches for the time being as well as nuclear and missile tests. This distinction has derailed diplomacy in the past,” she said.
On Friday, senior US officials called on Kim to act on his promise to give up his nuclear weapons and said the world, including China and Russia, must continue to enforce sanctions on Pyongyang until he does so.
A report in The Washington Post said that in spite of positive assessments Trump has given on progress with North Korea, he has vented anger at aides over a lack of immediate progress.
In a tweet on Monday, Trump called this report “fake news”.
A Rocket has not been launched by North Korea in 9 months. Likewise, no Nuclear Tests. Japan is happy, all of Asia is happy. But the Fake News is saying, without ever asking me (always anonymous sources), that I am angry because it is not going fast enough. Wrong, very happy!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 23, 2018
Last week, Trump said there was “no rush” and “no time limit” on denuclearisation negotiations.
Dan Coats, US director of national intelligence, said on Thursday it was technically possible for North Korea to eliminate its nuclear weapons program within a year, but added that it was not likely to happen.