A Washington think tank’s report about undeclared missile bases in North Korea has prompted debate over whether Pyongyang is keeping its promises to the US, with many commentators questioning how the controversy will affect denuclearization talks down the road.
Beyond Parallel, a team that specializes in North Korea issues at the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in its report published Monday that it has identified 13 out of an estimated 20 missile bases that North Korea has not declared.
The New York Times and other US media outlets pointed to the report to accuse North Korean leader Kim Jong-un of breaking the commitment he made upon meeting with US President Donald Trump in Singapore in June.
“The satellite images suggest that the North has been engaged in a great deception: It has offered to dismantle a major launching site … while continuing to make improvements at more than a dozen others that would bolster launches of conventional and nuclear warheads,” the New York Times reported.
|North Korea`s leader Kim Jong-un(left) and US President Donald Trump. Yonhap|
While the CSIS report is indicative of the challenges of verification in view of hidden nuclear and missile facilities scattered around North Korea, analysts say the claim that Pyongyang has broken promises is tendentious hyperbole, reflecting the Washington establishment’s critical view of Trump’s rapprochement with the North.
During the Singapore meeting with Trump, Kim pledged to work toward the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” In a good-faith measure, Kim offered to shut down a major missile launching site after shutting down Punggye-ri, a nuclear test site, in May.
But those moves do not suggest that Kim is required to declare missile bases that the North wants to hide from the outside world, experts have said, because North Korea has never agreed to provide a full accounting of its nuclear arsenal to the US.
“Technically speaking, it is not deception,” said Go Myung-hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. “North Korea has never promised a nuclear freeze. It only agreed to shut down a nuclear test site and a missile launch site.”
Compounding the controversy is that the satellite images of the missile bases were captured well before Kim met with Trump. The pictures of the Sakkanmol base were taken in March, three months before the Trump-Kim summit.
Leon V. Sigal, director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council, said the New York Times exaggerated what was originally said in the CSIS report.
In a commentary posted on the North Korea-focused website 38 North on Tuesday, Sigal said although it is possible that North Korea may have bolstered its nuclear capabilities, the Sakkanmol base seems to be the site of efforts to boost its conventional capabilities.
“Negotiating a halt to the deployment and production of IRBMs and ICBMs is much more urgent than addressing short-range missiles, which might remain in place as long as they are not nuclear-armed but are part of the North’s conventional deterrent,” Sigal said.
The controversial report also appears to reflect the frustration of Washington’s foreign policy establishment, which criticizes the leaders of South Korea and the US for being too naive in their approach toward North Korea’s nuclear program.
In a tweet posted Wednesday, Victor Cha, a prominent North Korea expert who co-authored the CSIS report, hit back at Trump’s claim that the report was “fake news” and criticized South Korea’s presidential office for advocating North Korea’s position.
Trump lashed out at the New York Times on Tuesday, calling the newspaper’s report about North Korea’s missile bases “fake news.” South Korea’s presidential office, Cheong Wa Dae, dismissed the CSIS report as containing “nothing new.”
“How can the (South Korean government) defend NK’s undisclosed operational missile bases?” wrote Cha. “For the sake of ‘fake diplomacy’? Seriously, how contorted can these rationalizations for NK weapons possession get??”
Cha asserted that North Korea should provide the list of those “undeclared” missile bases, saying they are still operational and capable of launching ballistic missiles. North Korea was believed to have fired short-range ballistic missiles from the Sakkanmol site in 2016.
In a closed-door meeting with lawmakers on Wednesday, South Korea’s top spy agency said North Korea is believed to be continuing nuclear and missile activity even after the first US-North Korea summit in June.
The controversy over North Korea’s missile bases could worsen the prospects of the already-stalled denuclearization talks, analysts said, because Democrats are ratcheting up their criticism of Trump’s North Korea policy after taking over the House of Representatives.
“The controversy should be put in the context of a battle between President Trump and the alliance of technocrats and (experts) over North Korea policy. Therefore, the reports were designed to send a message not just to North Korea, but to Trump and South Korea,” said Go of the Asan Institute.