US open to North Korea talks despite missile program activity

Donald Trump and Kin Jong Un shaking hands
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United States President Donald Trump is open to additional talks with Pyongyang over denuclearisation, his national security adviser said on Thursday, despite reports that North Korea is reactivating parts of its missile program. New activity has been detected at a factory that produced North Korea’s first intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching the United States, South Korea’s Joong AngIlbo and Donga Ilbo newspapers reported, citing lawmakers briefed by the National Intelligence Service.

This week, two US think tanks and Seoul’s spy agency said North Korea was rebuilding a rocket launch site, prompting Trump to say he would be “very, very disappointed in Chairman Kim” if it were true.

The reports of North Korean activity raise more questions about the future of the dialogue Trump has pursued with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un after a second summit between the two leaders in Vietnam broke down.

White House national security adviser John Bolton said on Thursday that Trump was still open to additional talks with North Korea over denuclearisation.

“The president’s obviously open to talking again. We’ll see when that might be scheduled or how it might work out,” Bolton said in an interview with Fox News.

Bolton, a hardliner who was argued for a tough approach to North Korea in the past, said it was too soon to make determination on the reports of the North Korean activities.

“We have a lot of ways of getting information. We’re going to study the situation carefully. As the president said, it would be very, very disappointing if they were taking this direction,” he said.

The 27-28 February Vietnam summit collapsed over differences on how far North Korea was willing to limit its nuclear program and the degree of US willingness to ease economic sanctions. Trump, eager for a big foreign policy win on North Korea that has eluded his predecessors for decades, has repeatedly stressed his good relationship with Kim. He went as far late 2018 as saying they “fell in love,” but the bonhomie has failed so far to bridge the wide gap between the two sides.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday he was hopeful he would send a delegation to North Korea for more talks in the next couple of weeks, but that he had received “no commitment yet.”

South Korean spy chief Suh Hoon told lawmakers in Seoul that movement of cargo vehicles was spotted recently around a North Korean ICBM factory at Sanumdong and he viewed it as missile-related, the Joong Ang Ilbo reported. The paper also quoted Suh as saying North Korea had continued to run its uranium enrichment facility at the main Yongbyon nuclear complex after a first summit between Trump and Kim last June in Singapore. The Sanumdong factory produced the Hwasong-15 ICBM, which can fly more than 13 000km.

After a test flight in 2017, North Korea declared the completion of its “state nuclear force,” before pursuing talks with South Korea and the US in 2018.

South Korea’s presidential office and defense ministry declined to confirm Sanumdong reports and the US State Department said it could not comment on intelligence matters.

Separately, US think tanks reported on Thursday that North Korea’s Sohae Satellite Launching Station appeared to be operational again after work that began days before Trump met with Kim in Hanoi. Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank called the work a “snapback” after North Korea partially dismantled the site, acting on a pledge by Kim to Trump in Singapore.

“The rebuilding activities at Sohae demonstrate how quickly North Korea can easily render reversible any steps taken towards scrapping its WMD program with little hesitation. North Korea’s actions constitute an affront to the president’s diplomatic strategy (and) demonstrate North Korean piqué at Trump’s refusal to lift economic sanctions during the meetings in Hanoi,” it said.

The Washington-based 38 North think tank also said the Sohae site appeared now to have returned to normal operational status.

Some analysts see the work as aimed at pressing Washington to agree to a deal, rather than as a definite move to resume tests. A US government source, who did not want to be identified, said North Korea’s plan in rebuilding the site could have been to offer a demonstration of good faith by conspicuously stopping again if a summit pact was struck, while furnishing a sign of defiance or resolve if the meeting failed.

Imagery from Planet Labs Inc. analysed by the Center for Non-proliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California showed activity at Sohae from 23 February until Wednesday. 38 North said photos from Wednesday showed the rail-mounted transfer building used to move rockets at the site was complete, cranes had been removed from the launch pad and the transfer building moved to the end of the pad.

“But we don’t draw any conclusions from that besides they are restoring the facility,” Joel Wit of 38 North told Reuters.” There is no evidence to suggest anything more than that.”

Bolton on Wednesday warned of new sanctions if North Korea did not scrap its weapons program.
Despite his sanctions talk, there have been signs across Asia that the US “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign against North Korea has sprung leaks.

In a new breach, three South Korean companies were found to have brought in more than 13 000 tons of North Korean coal, worth $2 million since 2017, South Korea said. North Korean media has given conflicting signals on US relations, while appearing to target Bolton as a spoiler. Its state television aired a 78-minute documentary late on Wednesday focused on showing a cordial mood between Trump and Kim as the summit ended, indicating Pyongyang was not about to walk away from negotiations, experts say.

It also showed a stone-faced Bolton during a meeting in Hanoi, while Trump and other US participants were all smiles.

In a return to a more usual, strident tone, the KCNA news agency criticized new small-scale military exercises that the US and South Korea plan to hold instead of a large-scale spring exercise they have called off. It said the drills would be a “violent violation” of agreements between the US and North Korea and between the two Koreas.

The US and South Korean militaries said last week they would not carry out a large-scale spring joint military exercises, replacing them with smaller-scale ones.