Senior Official: US Confident North Korea Can Be Denuclearized Before End of Trump’s First Term

By Patrick Goodenough | March 8, 2019 | 4:26 AM EST

North Korea's Unha-3 rocket is prepared for takeoff at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in April 2012. The launch of the long-range rocket mounted with a satellite failed that April, but a second attempt succeeded in December 2012. (Photo by Lee Hee-Young/Getty Images)

( – Despite concerns that North Korea may be taking steps to reverse the partial dismantling of a key missile testing site, a senior State Department official expressed confidence Thursday that the U.S. can achieve an end to the regime’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs before the end of President Trump’s first term.

“We still believe this is all achievable within the president’s first term, and that’s the timetable we’re working on,” the official told reporters on background. “That’s what we’re pushing very hard with our North Korean interlocutors to achieve.”

The official said the U.S. was “seeking clarification” from the North Koreans on the purposes of the work apparently underway at the Sohae missile launch site.

Trump said a day earlier he would be “very disappointed” if it turns out Kim Jong Un is going back on a commitment – made during their first summit in Singapore last June – to dismantle the site.

The facility, in Tongchang-ri near the border with China, has been the location of some of the regime’s most important and troubling tests.

New commercial satellite imagery reveals that components of the launch pad and other elements at Sohae are being restored, leading experts at the Center for Strategic and International Security to assess that the work at the facility is “returning it to normal operating status.”

“I would be very disappointed if that were happening,” Trump told reporters, when asked whether North Korea was rebuilding the site. “It’s a very early report – we’re the ones that put it out – but I would be very, very disappointed in Chairman Kim, and I don’t think I will be. But we’ll see what happens, we’ll take a look.”

Trump also declared that the relationship between the two sides is good, and concluded that the nuclear standoff will “ultimately get solved.”

Last week’s second Trump-Kim summit, in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi, ended early and without agreement, although U.S. officials said the sides departed on good terms.

The senior State Department official, who is heavily involved in the process, made clear that the target before the end of Trump’s first term is not simply to reach an agreement, but to achieve the actual goal of “final, fully verified denuclearization.”

The official spelled out what that entails:

“That means taking out all their key – parts of their nuclear fuel cycle, removing all their fissile material, removing their nuclear warheads, removing or destroying all their intercontinental ballistic missiles, permanently freezing any other weapons of mass destruction programs, and moving them on a course to reorient their economy towards civilian pursuits in order to make this a permanent direction for their country.”

On the table for the North Koreans in return, the official said, would be integration into the global economy, a transformed relationship with the U.S. after 70 years of hostility, and a permanent peace regime on the Korean peninsula.

Satellite launches

The Sohae facility, whose formal name is the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, was the launchpad for North Korea’s first successful firing of a satellite into orbit in December 2012, eight months after a first attempt failed.

The know-how used to put a satellite in orbit is applicable to ballistic missile development; the regime used an Unha-3 three-stage carrier rocket, based on the Taepodong-2 long-range missile. Experts viewed the achievement as a big leap forward in its quest for ICBM capability.

U.N. Security Council resolutions prohibit North Korea from conducting “any launch using ballistic missile technology,” but the regime disputed that that applied to satellite launches, and in February 2016 it launched another reconnaissance satellite, from the same facility.

In March 2017, the regime fired four ballistic missiles from Sohae into the Sea of Japan, with three landing within Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

Later that same year, North Korea evidently achieved ICBM capability, with launches in July and November – although not from Sohae on those occasions.

Pyongyang has in past years rejected the notion that launching a satellite or space launch vehicle amounts to ballistic missile testing. (The dispute in 2012 brought to an abrupt end the Obama administration’s short-lived “Leap Day” deal.)

The work now underway at Sohae has stoked speculation that it may be planning another satellite launch, which it would likely again argue does not breach its moratorium on missile launches.

The senior official was asked Thursday whether the administration would regard a satellite launch as a violation of the missile launch moratorium, and whether that view had been made clear to the North Koreans.

“I’m not going to elaborate on things that we might have discussed privately with the North Koreans,” the official said, “but let me just say in our judgment, launch of a space launch vehicle from that site, in our view, would be inconsistent with the commitments that the North Koreans have made.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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