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ANALYSIS

Fears over North Korea’s nuclear intentions increase pressure on Trump to nail down details

North Korean soldiers look across the border near the Military Demarcation Line at Panmunjom, South Korea, on Friday, Oct. 27, 2017.

MARCUS FICHTL/STARS AND STRIPES

By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 2, 2018

SEOUL, South Korea — Recent revelations suggesting that North Korea is pressing forward with its nuclear missile program increase pressure on the Trump administration to wrest concrete concessions and denuclearization timelines from the communist state.

A series of news reports, based on anonymous intelligence officials and satellite images, have added fodder to criticism that President Donald Trump gave away too much too soon in his unprecedented summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Skeptics say the North has no intention of giving up its hard-won gains in developing a nuclear weapon that could target the U.S. mainland and is trying to buy time to persuade Washington to ease punishing economic sanctions that have begun to bite.

The reports have emerged as the State Department announced that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would arrive in the North Korean capital Pyongyang on Friday to resume negotiations three weeks after Trump met with the North Korean leader in Singapore

In a sign the two sides are stepping up diplomacy, the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, Sung Kim, led a delegation to the tense border area on Sunday in the highest-level meeting with the North since the June 12 summit.

U.S. officials “met with North Korean counterparts in Panmunjom to discuss next steps on the implementation” of the declaration, a U.S. Embassy official said.

“Our goal remains the final, fully-verified denuclearization of the DPRK, as agreed to by Chairman Kim in Singapore,” the official said in an emailed statement, which referred to the initials of North Korea’s official name: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The wording dropped the usual reference to the “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.”

South Korean media reported that the North Korean delegation to the hourlong talks was led by Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui.

Diplomatic gains have been marred by U.S. intelligence and satellite images suggesting that the North is moving ahead with its nuclear weapons programs despite Kim’s summit promise to work toward the “complete denuclearization” of the divided peninsula.

The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday that new satellite images show the North is completing a major expansion of a plant that makes solid-fuel ballistic missiles and re-entry vehicles for warheads that could potentially be used to strike the United States.

It cited images analyzed by the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Calif., as showing that the North was finishing construction on the exterior of the Hamhung plant around the same time as the June 12 summit in Singapore.

U.S. intelligence officials also have obtained evidence that the North is considering ways to conceal the number of weapons it has and its secret production facilities, according to The Washington Post.

Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, called the report very troubling.

“North Korea has a long history of cheating on agreements that it’s made with previous administrations,” she said in an interview with CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“There’s no doubt that, in order to achieve that goal, we need verifiable, unimpeded, reliable inspections. And without those inspections, we can have no guarantee that North Korea is not cheating again.”

Other commercial satellite images reported last week by the monitoring website 38 North show that Pyongyang is rapidly upgrading its main nuclear complex at Yongbyon.

Given North Korea’s long history of deception, such reports are likely to raise more questions about exactly what was achieved at Singapore.

The U.S. administration insists it has a plan for rapid denuclearization of the North and has defended the diplomatic process, which has tamped down tensions after more than a year of missile and nuclear tests and saber rattling that raised fears of a new war.

The president — who tweeted after the summit that “there is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea” — said in an interview broadcast Sunday that he believes Kim is sincere, although he acknowledged a deal may not work out.

“I made a deal with him; I shook hands with him. I really believe he means it,” Trump told Fox News. “Now is it possible? Have I been in deals, have been in things where, people didn’t work out? It’s possible.”

National security adviser John Bolton, meanwhile, said that the North’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs could be dismantled within a year — a timeline that stands in contrast with the conclusions of many experts who say it would take several years even under the best of circumstances.

“I’m sure that the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, will be discussing this with the North Koreans in the near future,” Bolton said Sunday on the CBS news program “Face the Nation.” “If they have the strategic decision already made to do that and they’re cooperative, we can move very quickly.”

Bolton also conceded that the speed of denuclearization depends on North Korea’s cooperation — which is a wild card.

John Delury, a Korea specialist at Seoul’s Yonsei University, pointed out that Kim didn’t make any specific promises during the summit.

“This is not like North Korea cheating or deceiving the U.S. because they’ve made no commitments. They didn’t even commit to freezing the program,” he said.

He pointed out that Kim has made a series of appearances in recent days focusing on economic ventures. The 30-something leader has declared his country a nuclear power, allowing it to move forward with development.

“We’re looking at the tail end of this major push on the nuclear missile program and economic development,” he said, adding it may also be an effort to increase leverage ahead of more detailed negotiations.

“It’s kind of like increasing the price tag,” he said. “It’s like when you’re about to sell your house, you do a flurry of renovations before the sellers come to take a look because you’re trying to jack up the price.”

Trump and Kim signed a four-point declaration after the summit, which included the denuclearization agreement, a commitment to establish new bilateral relations and joint efforts to build “a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.”

They also agreed to the recovery of remains of thousands of U.S. servicemembers still missing from the 1950-53 Korean War and “the immediate repatriation of those already identified.”

No remains have been returned nearly three weeks after the summit, although the United Nations Command has moved coffins to the border among other preparations.

gamel.kim@stripes.com
Twitter: @kimgamel
 

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