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N. Korea Starts to Dismantle Key Missile Testing Site



Amid slow progress in denuclearization negotiations between North Korea and the U.S., Pyongyang has started to dismantle a key missile testing site. Attention turns to whether North Korea’s recent moves will get the bilateral negotiations back on track. Here is Professor Park Won-gon, international relations professor at Handong Global University. 

The site played an important role in the development of North Korea’s ballistic missiles. There, North Korea conducted a test of new high-thrust engine in 2017. The nation called the test the “March 18 revolution” in the development of its rocket industry. The North successfully developed the new engine, which was used for a Hwasong-12 intermediate-range missile and Hwasong-14, 15 long-range missiles. The Hwasong-15 missile can target the U.S. mainland. The U.S.-based North Korea monitoring website “38 North” has reported that this missile launching station in Tongchang-ri is being dismantled. 

Satellite imagery released by “38 North” shows that North Korea is dismantling key facilities at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in Tongchang-ri, North Pyongan Province near the west coast of the country. The facilities are a rail-mounted processing structure, where space launch vehicles are assembled, and the rocket engine test stand used to develop liquid-fuel engines. It is the site that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un promised to destroy at the June 12 summit with U.S. President Donald Trump. On the part of North Korea, it is quite significant to dismantle the key facilities used for developing intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. 

First, I think North Korea wants to keep the momentum of denuclearization talks alive. If North Korea continues to refuse to take any specific denuclearization measures, the U.S. will doubt Pyongyang’s commitment. North Korea probably needed to take some forward-looking action at an appropriate time. Secondly, the North seems to have taken a preemptive measure ahead of the 65th anniversary of the signing of the Korean War armistice agreement on July 27. With the dismantlement of the missile site, the North is urging the U.S. to declare an end to the war. Around July 27, North Korea is also expected to return the remains of American soldiers killed during the war. North Korea is trying to say that it is implementing the third and fourth points of the June 12 joint agreement between Kim and Trump. It seems to be using the dismantlement as a means of pressuring the U.S. to take bold measures related to the first and second points of the summit agreement, namely, improvement in bilateral ties and a peace regime. 

At a press conference after the June 12 North Korea-U.S. summit, Trump said that Kim would shut down a missile testing site. But afterwards, North Korea didn’t make any particular moves. Moreover, when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo returned from his third North Korea visit empty-handed, Trump faced growing criticism. In this situation, North Korea’s move to close the missile launching station is likely to have a positive impact on the slow denuclearization negotiations between the two countries. But on July 23, the U.S. released an advisory alerting its businesses of sanctions evasion tactics by North Korea. 

Washington’s recent move is aimed at pressuring North Korea to take denuclearization measures. The closure of the Tongchang-ri testing site is important, of course, but for the U.S., it is more important that North Korea presents a detailed roadmap for denuclearization. The closure is only meaningful as a step in the broad context of denuclearization, not as a one-off event. The U.S. feels the need to continue to remind North Korea of this. As an extension of the pressure, three U.S. departments jointly issued an advisory on North Korea sanctions, saying that countries and firms doing business with North Korea in defiance of U.S. and U.N. sanctions will be on the blacklist. The U.S. revealed the names of 239 companies engaged in illegal trade with North Korea, while also disclosing a list of 42 countries where North Korean workers have illegally earned foreign currency. 

The U.S. administration’s latest sanction measure shows that it will continue with its maximum pressure campaign on North Korea until the North completely denuclearizes. Still, Trump has welcomed reports that North Korea has begun to dismantle its missile testing site. Following the dismantlement, if North Korea repatriates the remains of U.S. soldiers who died in the Korean War, the stalled relations between the North and the U.S. may improve quickly. Furthermore, the declaration of a formal end to the Korean War—something North Korea wants—could be possible at the U.N. General Assembly in September. But it isn’t easy to narrow the differences between the two sides, and the South Korean government’s mediating role is becoming increasingly important. 

The U.S. and North Korea are showing widely differing views. Washington wants the North to take preemptive denuclearization action and provide a timeline for that, while Pyongyang requests the U.S. to take bold measures to mend bilateral ties and build a peace regime, insisting on a phased and synchronized approach. In this fierce tug-of-war, it is necessary to find a breakthrough. South Korea should take the lead in the process, although North Korea has criticized South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s analogy of Seoul being in the “driver’s seat” on Korean Peninsula issues. It is very important for South Korea to continue to push for North Korea’s denuclearization. Regarding the end-of-war declaration issue, South Korea should closely cooperate with the U.S. 

With North Korea’s dismantlement of its missile testing site, the denuclearization talks face a turning point. Amid rising expectations for follow-up negotiations between North Korea and the U.S., attention swings to how the South Korean government will help the North and the U.S. find some common ground in their negotiations.

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