N. Korea ‘missile launch’ plans under scrutiny as concern mounts

Published March 11, 2019, 7:09 PM

by Francine Ciasico

By Agence France-Presse 

South Korea’s military said Monday it was closely monitoring North Korean facilities after a series of satellite images triggered international alarm that Pyongyang might be preparing a long-range missile or space launch.

Soldiers stand guard in front of the Unha-3 rocket at North Korea's Sohae Satellite Launch Station, in 2012 (AFP / MANILA BULLETIN)
Soldiers stand guard in front of the Unha-3 rocket at North Korea’s Sohae Satellite Launch Station, in 2012 (AFP / MANILA BULLETIN)

Any launch would send the stuttering talks on denuclearization into disarray, after a high-stakes second summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un collapsed last month without a deal.

But some analysts suggest the North might be stage-managing activity at certain key sites, to stoke concern and secure “better terms” when the two sides next meet.

Washington wants what administration officials have called a “big deal”, with the complete elimination of weapons of mass destruction in return for the dropping of sanctions that have strangled the isolated North’s economy.

North Korea favours a more step-by-approach, with Kim proposing dismantling its Yongbyon nuclear complex in exchange for lifting the main sanctions — a notion Trump refused in Hanoi despite the vaunted “chemistry” between the pair.

“The North could be trying to show the US it can always turn back to aggressive posture by rebuilding missile sites in order to gain leverage in future talks, but without actually firing a missile or rocket,” said Cheong Seong-Chang, a senior researcher at the private Sejong Institute.

“It is hard to rule out the possibility of a rocket launch at the Sohae station at this point as North Korea has proven time and time again it can do unexpected things.”

 ‘All possible scenarios’ 

Satellite analysis now indicates increased activity at two key sites — the Samundong missile research facility and the Sohae rocket launch center.

Located on the outskirts of Pyongyang, Samundong was built in 2012 to support development of long-range missiles and space-launch vehicles.

As well as developing the Hawsong-15 ICBM, which analysts agree is capable of reaching the whole US mainland, Samundong constructed the long-range rockets that were then transported and successfully launched from the Sohae satellite launch station in 2012 and 2016.

Images of Samundong taken on February 22 showed cars and trucks at the site, as well as rail cars and cranes at a yard, US news outlet NPR has reported.

South Korea is “closely tracking and looking into all activity for possible scenarios including a missile launch” across the border, said Kim Joon-rak, spokesman of the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Experts are divided over Pyongyang’s plans, but whatever its intentions, a launch would shatter the fragile US-North Korea relationship and revive the angry language that had stoked fears of a military conflict at the start of the Trump presidency.

“This is North Korea’s classic brinkmanship on display again,” said Lim Eul-chul, professor of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University.

“The North’s intention is clear. It wants early resumption of talks with the US, but on better terms.”

Veteran North Korea watchers said that any activity is likely to be finely calibrated and could also be intended to send a clear message within the isolated regime.

“Kim could use a launch to demonstrate at the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly, probably in mid-April, that he has not been cowed by sanctions,” said former US negotiator Joel Wit, now the director of the respected 38 North website.