SEOUL: US analysts have claimed a North Korean satellite station, suspected of being used to test intercontinental ballistic missiles, has returned to “normal operational status” despite a pledge to dismantle it.
The move could threaten future denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang, following the collapse of the second Trump-Kim Summit in Hanoi in February.
In a briefing to reporters on Thursday, a senior US State Department official warned that the US government would impose tougher sanctions on North Korea, though it remained open to dialogue with Kim Jong Un.
He added Washington would ask Pyongyang to allow US experts to visit the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, known as the Tongchang-ri long-range missile site.
“We will definitely be seeking clarification, and will seek the admission of US inspectors to the site to verify the permanent dismantlement and destruction,” he said, making clear that sanctions would remain in place in the meantime without exceptions.
On Thursday, the monitoring website 38 North claimed the Tongchang-ri site appeared to have returned to normal operational status, citing satellite images from March 6.
“Construction to rebuild the launch pad and engine test stand that began before the Hanoi summit has continued at a rapid pace,” 38 North said in a report.
“Given that construction, plus activity at other areas of the site, Sohae appears to have returned to normal operational status.”
Going into details, the report said work on the rail-mounted transfer structure appeared to have been completed. Cranes had been removed from the pad, and the overhead trusses being installed on the roof were covered.
The Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies concurred with the findings.
“The rebuilding activities at Sohae demonstrate how quickly North Korea can easily render reversible any steps taken toward scrapping its WMD program with little hesitation,” the research group said.
“This poses challenges for the US goal of final, irreversible and verifiable denuclearization.”
In response to the reports, Trump said he was “a little disappointed.” The South Korean government, though, is seeking ways of resuming economic projects with the North, a move that could strain relations with the US.
President Moon Jae-in appointed a new unification minister, who was a key architect of the Kaesong Industrial Complex in the North. First opened in 2004, the complex was closed in 2016 after a series of North Korean military provocations.
Moon is also looking to reopen the Mount Kumgang resort in the North. The tourism program was suspended in 2008. after a South Korean female tourist was shot dead by a North Korean guard.