Seoul: Increased vehicle movement at NKorea’s ICBM center
By KIM TONG-HYUNG
Thursday, March 7
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea’s military said Thursday it is carefully monitoring North Korean nuclear and missile facilities after the country’s spy agency told lawmakers that new activity was detected at a research center where the North is believed to build long-range missiles targeting the U.S. mainland.
Defense Ministry spokeswoman Choi Hyun-soo said the U.S. and South Korean militaries are closely coordinating intelligence over the developments at the North’s missile research center in Sanumdong on the outskirts of the capital, Pyongyang, and also at a separate long-range rocket site. She did not elaborate on what the developments were.
A lawmaker who attended a closed-door intelligence briefing told The Associated Press that National Intelligence Service director Suh Hoon said his agency had monitored increased vehicle movement at the Sanumdong facility. Suh said in the briefing Tuesday that vehicles were transporting supplies, but avoided specific answers when lawmakers pressed him on what they were for, the lawmaker said. The lawmaker requested anonymity because the information was sensitive.
Suh also told lawmakers that North Korea is restoring facilities at a rocket launch site in Tongchang-ri that it partially dismantled last year as part of disarmament steps, an assessment supported by private U.S. reports based on satellite imagery. While the NIS believes North Korea has not produced plutonium for nuclear weapons in months, signs of uranium use have been seen at an enrichment facility at North Korea’s main nuclear complex in Yongbyon, the lawmaker said. The International Atomic Energy Agency provided a similar estimation in a recent report.
The revelations follow the collapse of talks in Vietnam last week between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump over what the Americans said were excessive North Korean demands for sanctions relief in exchange for a limited offer to partially shutter the Yongbyon site.
It wasn’t immediately clear how the findings might affect nuclear negotiations. The United States and North Korea accused each other of causing the breakdown of the talks in Vietnam, but both sides left the door open for future negotiations.
Some analysts said North Korea is apparently trying to convey displeasure over the summit’s failure by creating an impression that it could resume missile or rocket tests. That would put pressure on Washington and Seoul, which has acted as a mediator, to make a deal, they said.
Kim said in a New Year’s address that he was committed to his high-stakes summitry with Trump, but also warned he may need to pursue a “new way” if the United States continues to insist on unilateral demands and sanctions. After the Vietnam summit collapsed, North Korean diplomat Choe Sun Hui told reporters that Kim “might lose his willingness” to continue nuclear negotiations.
Moon Seong Mook, an analyst for the Seoul-based Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, said it’s unlikely that North Korea will resume major missile tests or satellite launches anytime soon because that would risk destroying its fragile negotiations with Washington and could bring even harsher sanctions on its crippled economy.
He said North Korea will also want to see if South Korea will support its position more strongly. Undeterred by the breakdown of the talks in Vietnam, South Korea has continued to urge the United States to ease sanctions on North Korea to allow a resumption of inter-Korean economic projects and encourage more disarmament steps from the North.
When asked about the reports about work at the Tongchang-ri site, Trump told reporters at the White House he would be “very, very disappointed in Chairman Kim” if that were happening. He also said it was “a very early report” and that “we’ll see what happens. We’ll take a look. It will ultimately get solved.”
North Korea didn’t immediately respond in its state media.
Experts say the Sanumdong facility is where North Korea assembles its intercontinental ballistic missiles. The North conducted three flight tests of developmental ICBMs in 2017 that demonstrated their potential ability to reach the continental United States.
Following his last ICBM test in November 2017, Kim declared that his nuclear force was complete. But experts say North Korea still needs to master a few remaining technologies, such as ensuring that the warhead survives the harsh conditions of atmospheric re-entry, to have functioning ICBMs.
In early 2018, Kim expressed his intention to deal away his weapons arsenal in return for security and economic benefits. The North initiated diplomacy with Washington and Seoul and has since unilaterally suspended nuclear and missile tests and dismantled its underground nuclear testing site without the presence of outside experts.
It also dismantled parts of the Tongchang-ri rocket launch facility. North Korea had carried out satellite launches at the site in recent years, resulting in U.N. sanctions over claims that they were disguised tests of banned missile technology.
After a September summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Pyongyang, Kim agreed to “permanently shut down” the Tongchang-ri engine test ground and rocket launch pad with the participation of foreign experts.
Trump said Kim told him in Vietnam that North Korea will continue to suspend nuclear and missile tests while negotiations are underway, and South Korea and the U.S. announced Sunday that they are eliminating massive springtime military drills and replacing them with smaller exercises in an effort to support the talks.
Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim contributed to this report.
Trump still hopes for North Korea deal after ominous report
By DEB RIECHMANN and MATTHEW LEE
WASHINGTON (AP) — Satellite photos showing new activity at a North Korean rocket launch site raised fresh doubts that Kim Jong Un will ever give up his drive for nuclear weapons, yet talks continue and President Donald Trump said he was still hoping for the agreement that eluded the leaders at last week’s summit.
The president said his relationship with the North Korean leader remains “good” even though Trump walked away from negotiations at their high-profile meeting in Vietnam. He said then that the North’s concessions on its nuclear program weren’t enough to warrant sanctions relief, and he said Wednesday he’d be unhappy if reports prove true that Kim is rebuilding a launch site after promising in Vietnam to extend his ban on nuclear and rocket tests.
“I would be very, very disappointed in Chairman Kim,” Trump said when reporters asked him about reports of new work at the Sohae Satellite Launch Station, which is tucked into the hills northwest of Pyongyang. “I don’t think I will be” disappointed, Trump said, “but we’ll see what happens.”
Past administrations discovered the perils of trying to do business with North Korea, which has a history of backing out of agreements. Trump believes his discussions will be different because Kim he has publicly announced his desire to focus on economic development in his reclusive nation, which is suffering under harsh U.S. and international sanctions.
Trump has favored direct talks with Kim, but with no third summit under discussion right now, the next stage of negotiations is likely to be conducted at lower levels. Trump’s envoy to North Korea, Steve Biegun, had lunch Wednesday at the State Department with his counterparts from Japan and South Korea. The South Koreans have proposed semiofficial three-way talks with the United States and North Korea as it works to put nuclear diplomacy back on track.
Suh Hoon, the director of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, told his nation’s lawmakers in Seoul that North Korea was restoring facilities at a rocket launch site it had dismantled last year in a goodwill measure.
Meanwhile, 38 North, a website specializing in North Korea studies, said commercial satellite imagery indicates the rebuilding started between Feb. 16 and March 2. And the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, issued another report saying satellite imagery taken Saturday — just two days after the summit ended — showed North Korea “pursuing a rapid rebuilding” of the rocket site.
Some analysts think the work is a signal that Kim is getting ready to conduct more tests, but others suggest he’s just registering his disappointment that no agreement was reached at the summit. Trump himself added to the confusion, saying his administration had a hand in the report on Sohae being made public.
“It’s a very early report. We’re the ones that put it out,” Trump said without elaborating.
Joel Wit, a North Korea proliferation expert who helped negotiate with North Korea in the mid-1990s, said the new work at Sohae is Kim’s way of showing that he’s “getting impatient with lack of progress in negotiations.”
“We have to watch to see what else happens,” Wit said. “It’s a space launch facility and has been used to send satellites into space. … Problem is, some of the technologies are the same.”
He said there is no evidence that North Korea’s work at the site signals Kim is preparing to test another intercontinental missile. He said North Korea has never tested an ICBM at Sohae. “Preparations for any launch would require a wide range of activities not observed at the site,” Wit said.
Trump and Kim, who also met in Singapore last year, have not said if there will be a third summit. For now, discussions with North Korea will be conducted by their subordinates. Biegun, the U.S. envoy to North Korea, gave members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee a classified update Tuesday afternoon on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said that before any further summits between the leaders, there must be lower-level discussions to determine how far Kim is willing to go to denuclearize. That’s all the more important “to continue to test the North Koreans’ willingness now that they know they’re not going to get an easy deal,” Menendez said.
Committee Chairman Jim Risch, R-Idaho, said Biegun has a vision of where the U.S. wants to take the talks.
“He has clear knowledge of the steps that it takes to get there, and he’s laid that out for the North Koreans,” Risch said.
There’s no framework agreement “to put the details on it yet,” he said. But he added: “The differences have been narrowed.”
Less upbeat, Committee member Edward Markey, D-Mass., said the work at Sohae could be a sign that Kim is more interested in getting concessions from the U.S. than conducting good faith efforts to denuclearize. He said he’s also worried that future satellite launches at Sohae could help Kim further his work on ballistic missiles to threaten the U.S. and its allies with a nuclear attack.
“President Trump never codified in writing North Korea’s missile and nuclear testing freeze,” Markey said. “Without that formal commitment, North Korea might claim it is doing nothing wrong and derail the fragile diplomatic process underway.”
UN: 11 million North Koreans need food and kids are stunted
By EDITH M. LEDERER
UNITED NATIONS (AP) — An estimated 11 million people in North Korea — over 43 percent of the population — are undernourished and “chronic food insecurity and malnutrition is widespread,” according to a U.N. report issued Wednesday.
The report by Tapan Mishra, the head of the U.N. office in North Korea, said that “widespread undernutrition threatens an entire generation of children, with one in five children stunted due to chronic undernutrition.”
With only limited health care and a lack of access to clean water and sanitation, “children are also at risk of dying from curable diseases,” the report added.
Mishra said that last year’s U.N. appeal for $111 million to help 6 million of North Korea’s most vulnerable people was only 24 percent funded, one of the lowest levels in the world.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters Wednesday that the U.N. humanitarian team in the country is calling for $120 million “to urgently provide life-saving aid to 3.8 million people.” Without adequate funding this year, some agencies providing desperately needed help to North Koreans will be forced to close down, he said.
Dujarric said North Korea’s government asked last month for help from international humanitarian groups to combat food shortages. He said food production figures provided by North Korea showed “there is a food gap of about 1.4 million tons expected for 2019, and that’s crops including rice, wheat, potato and soybeans.”
Mishra’s report said North Korea faces annual shortfalls in agricultural production because of a shortage of arable land, lack of access to modern agricultural equipment and fertilizers, and recurrent natural disasters. Last year, it said, there was a severe heat wave in provinces considered to be the country’s “food basket,” and the food situation was further aggravated by Typhoon Soulik in late August.
Many North Koreans don’t eat an adequately diverse diet, which reinforces their poor nutrition, Mishra said.
Although the national rate of stunting has dropped significantly from 28 percent in 2012 to 19 percent in 2017, Mishra cited major regional differences varying from 10 percent in the capital area of Pyongyang Province to 32 percent in Ryanggang Province in the northwest bordering China.
He said an estimated 3 percent of children under age 5 — approximately 140,000 — “suffer from wasting or acute malnutrition” and “have a higher risk of mortality.”
“The main underlying causes of wasting are poor household food security, inadequate feeding and care practices, as well as poor access to health, water, hygiene and sanitation services,” Mishra said.
The report was issued days after a summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump ended without any agreement on the North’s nuclear program.
While U.N. Security Council sanctions imposed on North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs are supposed to exempt humanitarian activities, “humanitarian agencies continue to face serious unintended consequences on their programs,” Mishra said. He cited “lack of funding, the absence of a banking channel for humanitarian transfers and challenges to the delivery of humanitarian supplies.”
North Korea’s banking channel has been suspended since September 2017 and attempts to find a replacement have been unsuccessful, Mishra said.
He welcomed new procedures approved by the Security Council committee monitoring sanctions against North Korea last August to streamline and expedite requests for exemptions from sanctions for humanitarian programs.
However, Mishra said, “the continued risk-averse approach taken by suppliers and some authorities in transit countries … continues to cause significant delays in the delivery of life-saving humanitarian assistance.”countries … continues to cause significant delays in the delivery of life-saving humanitarian assistance.”