North Korea ‘missile launch’ plans under scrutiny as concern mounts

Above, N. Korea tested missiles on Sohae station in 2017, satellite companies reported renewed activity on the site. (AFP/File)
Updated 11 March 2019
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North Korea ‘missile launch’ plans under scrutiny as concern mounts

  • Some analysts say N. Korea is creating worries on purpose to have more negotiation power
  • Satellites captured earlier renewed activity at one of N. Korea’s long-range missile launching site

SEOUL: 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.
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 favors 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.”
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.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed last year to shut the Sohae site at a summit with the South’s President Moon Jae-in in Pyongyang. Satellite pictures in August suggested workers were dismantling an engine test stand there.
But the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies suggested last week that rebuilding was progressing quickly at the facility.
A moving structure that had been used to carry vehicles to a launch pad on rails has been restored, said 38 North, adding that the work had started before last month’s failed meeting in Hanoi.
Chun In-bum, a North Korea expert and a retired three-star general, said it was “too early” to conclude the North was preparing for another rocket launch at Sohae.
However, he said that if the North went ahead, the US would be “forced to react” whether it turned out to be a missile test or a satellite launch.
North Korea has been banned by the UN Security Council from carrying out space launches, as some of its technology was similar to that used for intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs.
John Bolton, President Donald Trump’s hawkish national security adviser, said Sunday the US sees “exactly what they are doing” in regard to possible launch moves by the nuclear-armed state.
“We see it unblinkingly, and we don’t have any illusions about what those are,” he warned, adding his boss would be “pretty disappointed” if a nuclear-armed state conducted a new missile test.


France’s Macron forced to curb his ambitions for Europe

Updated 19 May 2019
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France’s Macron forced to curb his ambitions for Europe

  • His pro-Europe vision has collided with populists and national interests across the continent
  • In his country, his political vision has given rise to France’s raucous yellow vest uprising over his government’s pro-business policies

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron sees himself as Europe’s savior and next week’s European Parliament elections as a make-or-break moment for the beleaguered European Union.
But Macron is no longer the fresh-faced force who marched into a surprising presidential victory to the rousing EU anthem two years ago. His pro-Europe vision has collided with populists and national interests across the continent. And at home, his political vision has given rise to France’s raucous yellow vest uprising over his government’s pro-business policies.
Macron wanted the May 23-26 European Parliament elections to be the key moment that he could push his ambitions for a stronger Europe — but instead, nationalists and populists who criticized the 28-nation bloc could achieve unprecedented success.
They argue that EU leaders have failed to manage migration into the continent and remain out of touch with ordinary workers’ concerns.
“We have a crisis of the European Union. This is a matter of fact. Everywhere in Europe, when you look at the past five to six years, in our country but in a lot of countries, all the extremes, extreme-rights, are increasing,” Macron said Thursday, making an unexpected appeal for European unity on the sidelines of a technology trade show.
“On currency, on digital, on climate action, we need more Europe,” he said. “I want the EU to be more protective of our borders regarding migration, terrorism and so on, but I think if you fragment Europe, there is no chance you have a stronger Europe.”
In person, the 41-year-old Macron comes across as strikingly, sincerely European. A political centrist, he’s at ease quoting Greek playwrights, German thinkers or British economists. France’s youngest president grew up with the EU and has been using the shared European euro currency his whole adult life, and sees it as Europe’s only chance to stay in the global economic game.
Macron has already visited 20 of the EU’s 28 countries in his two years in office, and while he acknowledges the EU’s problems, he wants to fix the bloc — not disassemble it.
Macron won the 2017 presidential election over France’s far-right, anti-immigration party leader Marine Le Pen on a pledge to make Europe stronger to face global competition against the Unites States and China. Since then, he’s had to make compromises with other EU leaders — and clashed with some nations where populist parties govern, from Poland to neighboring Italy.
Four months after his election, Macron outlined his vision for Europe in a sweeping speech at Paris’ Sorbonne university, calling for a joint EU budget, shared military forces and harmonized taxes.
But with Brexit looming and nationalism rising, Macron has had to reconsider his ambitions. He called his political tactics with other EU leaders a “productive confrontation.”
“In Europe, what is expected from France is to clearly say what it wants, its goals, its ambitions, and then be able to build a compromise with Germany to move forward” with other European countries, Macron said last week.
Macron stressed that despite her initial reluctance, German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed last year to create a eurozone budget they hope will boost investment and provide a safety mechanism for the 19 nations using the euro currency.
In March, Macron sought to draw support for a Europe of “freedom, protection and progress” with a written call to voters in 28 countries to reject nationalist parties that “offer nothing.”
And he proposed to define a roadmap for the EU by the end of this year in a discussion with all member nations and a panel of European citizens.
“There will be disagreement, but is it better to have a static Europe or a Europe that advances, sometimes at different paces, and that is open to all?” he asked.
France and Germany are the two heavyweights in Europe, and Macron can also count on cooperation from pro-European governments of Belgium, The Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and others.
He has made a point, however, of not yet visiting Hungary or Poland, two nations led by populist leaders whom Macron accused last year of “lying” to their people about the EU.
France has also been entangled in a serious diplomatic crisis with Italy over migration into Europe. Italy’s anti-migrant Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has repeatedly criticized Macron and is backing his rival Le Pen’s National Rally party in the election this week that aims to fill the European parliament’s 751 seats.
Macron has little chance to repeat Europe-wide what he did in France: rip up the political map by building a powerful centrist movement that weakened the traditional left and right.
The campaign for Macron’s Republic on the Move party is being led by former European Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau under a banner called “Renaissance.” The party wants to associate with the pro-market ALDE alliance to create new centrist group at the European Parliament.
But across the continent, the centrists are not expected to come out remotely on top but rank third or even lower behind the parliament’s traditional two biggest groups, the right-wing European People’s Party and the left-wing Socialists and Democrats group.
Even at home, Macron is far from certain of being able to claim victory in the European vote. Polls suggest his party will be among France’s top two vote-getters in the election, which takes place in France on May 26.
But its main rival, the far-right National Rally party, is determined to take revenge on Macron beating Le Pen so decisively in 2017.
Macron’s political opponents across the spectrum are calling on French voters to seize the European vote to reject his government’s policies.
While he won 64% of the presidential vote in 2017, French polls show that Macron’s popularity has been around half that for the past year.
It reached record lows when France’s yellow vest movement broke out last fall, demanding relief from high taxes and stagnant wages for French workers, then slightly rose as extensive violence during yellow vest protests, especially in Paris, dampened support for the movement’s cause.
Still, the yellow vests are not going away. New protests against Macron and his government are planned for the EU election day.