North Korea Starts Dismantling Key Missile Facilities, Report Says

Satellite imagery appears to show efforts by North Korea to dismantle facilities at its Sohae Satellite Launching Station.

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea has started dismantling a missile-engine test site, as President Trump said the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, promised he would during their historic summit meeting in Singapore in June, according to an analysis of satellite imagery of the location.

The North Koreans have started taking apart the engine test stand at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, said Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., an expert on North Korea’s weapons programs, in a report published on Monday on the website 38 North. The dismantling work probably began sometime within the last two weeks, he said.

North Korea has also started dismantling a rail-mounted building at the Sohae station where workers used to assemble space launch vehicles before moving them to the launchpad, Mr. Bermudez said.

Mr. Bermudez compared satellite photos of the Sohae facilities taken on Friday and Sunday to conclude that North Korea had begun taking “an important first step toward fulfilling a commitment made by Kim Jong-un.”

But it still remained unclear whether North Korea planned to raze the entire Sohae site in the country’s northeast, which has been vital to its space program. In satellite images, other important facilities like fuel bunkers, a main assembly building and the gantry tower remain untouched.

But dismantling activities at Sohae could be an encouraging sign for the Trump administration, which has so far had little to show for its efforts to denuclearize North Korea.

“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,” Mr. Bermudez said.

North Korea has used the Sohae facilities to launch its satellite-carrying rockets. Washington called the satellite program a front for developing intercontinental ballistic missiles. Mr. Kim visited the Sohae missile engine test site in March last year when engineers there successfully tested a new high-thrust engine that was believed to have powered intercontinental ballistic missiles the North launched months later.

Washington has been fretting over a lack of North Korean actions toward dismantling its nuclear and missile programs after the June 12 Singapore meeting, during which Mr. Kim made a general commitment to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Since his meeting with Mr. Kim, Mr. Trump has said that the North Korean nuclear crisis was largely over and that Mr. Kim planned to “get rid of certain ballistic missile sites and various other things.”

But North Korea has not moved as quickly as Mr. Trump wished, and has accused Washington of making a “unilateral, gangster-like demand for denuclearization” while offering the North little in return, like improved ties.

In recent days, American news reports have quoted administration officials as saying Mr. Trump has privately expressed frustration with the progress of denuclearization efforts. But on Monday, he dismissed the reports, tweeting that he was “very happy” with the progress with North Korea, noting that the country had not conducted any nuclear or missile tests since late last year.

North Korea officially says it no longer needs nuclear or missile tests because it has completed building its nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles and begun mass-producing them. Some Western officials and analysts still doubt that the country has mastered the technologies needed for launching a reliable long-range missile to a target across an ocean.

North Korea has yet to explain what it meant by “complete denuclearization” — for instance, whether it would allow intrusive inspections by outside monitors to verify its actions.

Many analysts say North Korea will not have started denuclearizing until it begins dismantling its nuclear weapons. North Korea has not started disposing of its fissile materials or nuclear facilities, such as a nuclear reactor and centrifuges, that have been used to produce the weapons. Nor has it announced whether and when it will dismantle missiles that it says can deliver nuclear warheads.

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