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(News Focus) Speculation mounts over N. Korea's rocket site activity amid stalled denuclearization talks

All Headlines 14:41 April 02, 2019

By Koh Byung-joon

SEOUL, April 2 (Yonhap) -- When South Korea's spy agency revealed last month that North Korea had been repairing its long-range rocket site, the widespread assessment was that Pyongyang began the work to get the site ready for dismantlement in anticipation of a deal from February's summit with the United States.

But experts have since warned that the communist nation could go ahead and conduct a launch from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, also known as the Dongchang-ri site, as the Hanoi summit between leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump ended without an agreement in an embarrassing blow to Kim.

For now, chances of a launch do not appear to be high, with the North showing no additional moves after completing the repair work, but concerns still persist that the site can be readied for a launch at any time if Kim decides to do so.

Experts say that such a provocation could be possible in that North Korea wants to raise the overall stakes in the currently stalled denuclearization negotiations and force a "make-or-break" deal on the U.S. following the no-deal breakdown of February's summit in Hanoi.

On Tuesday, a local newspaper reported that a missile provocation by the North is looming large.

"The North in effect has completed its repair work on the Dongchang-ri long-range missile test site," the JoongAng Ilbo quoted an anonymous government official in Seoul as saying. "It appears to be ready for a launch only if the top leadership (in North Korea) makes a decision."

The paper earlier reported that the U.S. has deployed a reconnaissance aircraft known as Cobra Ball that specializes in tracking ballistic missiles in Okinawa, Japan, in yet another sign that the North is preparing to launch a missile.

In Washington, Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo said it is still unclear whether the North's activity at the rocket station is aimed at increasing its negotiating leverage or for a real launch.

"I think this is a part that we need to make a determination on after checking additional information," Jeong told South Korean correspondents in Washington after holding talks with acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan.

The Dongchang-ri site is the main facility of the country's long-range missile development program. In February 2016, North Korea fired a long-range rocket from there, claiming that it had successfully put a satellite into orbit.

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un smile during a dinner at the Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel in Hanoi on Feb. 27, 2019, in this photo captured from the Twitter account of the White House. (Yonhap)

Pyongyang claims it has the right to launch a rocket to put a satellite into orbit as part of a peaceful space program, but Seoul and Washington have viewed such a move by Pyongyang as disguised testing of ballistic missile technology.

Such rocket launches are also banned under U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Some experts worry that it could be possible for the North to flirt with a missile launch option as apparently such a provocation could shake the chessboard at its core by forcing a make-or-break choice by Washington, which appears to be firm in its stance of keeping sanctions on Pyongyang.

"He (Kim Jong-un) might take a page out of his own historical playbook now that President Trump embarrassed him in Hanoi," Joel Wit, a top North Korea expert and founder of 38 North, a website monitoring and analyzing the communist nation, said in a recent analysis report.

"Kim may come back to the Trump administration just as he did after the April 2012 launch and say, 'Let's make a deal,'" he said. "The (Barack) Obama administration turned him down and moved forward with new sanctions. Whether President Trump would take him up on such an offer is anyone's guess."

He was referring to an agreement reached in February 2012, also known as the Leap Day Deal, which called for the North to suspend missile and nuclear testing in exchange for food aid. The deal, however, fell apart after the North fired a rocket weeks later on April 15, the 100th birthday of late founder Kim Il-sung.

The North has a track record of using such political events to launch missile tests.

For this April, major political events are slated in North Korea, including the late founder's birthday and the first session of the 14th Supreme People's Assembly on April 11 since the election of new deputies to the country's rubber-stamp parliament.

The North had partially dismantled the Dongchang-ri site to underscore its denuclearization commitment last year. The North's leader also agreed at his September summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in to permanently dismantle the site.

Ahead of the Hanoi summit with Trump, Pyongyang began repairing the site in an apparent effort to get it ready for dismantlement because blowing up a fully intact facility would be more visually appealing than dismantling a partially demolished facility.

The North has also refrained from carrying out any nuclear or missile tests since late 2017.

But the situation changed after the Hanoi summit broke down as Kim and Trump failed to find common ground on the scope of Pyongyang's denuclearization and Washington's corresponding concessions, including sanctions relief.

On March 11, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui warned that the North could end denuclearization talks with the U.S., saying that it would not give in to Washington's unilateral "gangster-like" demands.

She also warned that the North could lift its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and missile tests.

This file photo from December 2012, released by the North's Korean Central News Agency at the time, shows a North Korean long-range rocket, the Unha-3, being launched from the Dongchang-ri site. South Korean President Moon Jae-in said after his summit talks with the North's leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang on Sept. 19, 2018, that the North will permanently close down the site, as well as the Yongbyon nuclear facilities. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

Despite the mounting concerns, the Seoul government has cautioned against reading too much into recent signals from Pyongyang, dismissing worries about any imminent missile test by the North.

"Describing them as missile-related activities is a hasty judgment," Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo said during a session of the National Assembly's defense committee in mid-March, referring to the restoration work on the Dongchang-ri site. "Though Dongchang-ri is a launch site, we don't judge them as activities in preparation for a missile launch."

Washington seems to be ready for the possibility that North Korea resumes missile tests in what appears to be its typical brinkmanship tactic in denuclearization negotiations.

"While President Trump and our diplomats negotiate for the denuclearization of North Korea, its collection of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles continues to pose a threat to the U.S. Homeland, as well as our allies," Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said on March 14 in a written statement for the Senate Armed Services Committee.

U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford told the committee on the same day that Washington must "remain ready for multiple contingencies" while it remains hopeful for peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Against this backdrop, South Korean President Moon and U.S. President Trump are scheduled to meet on April 11 in Washington to discuss their coordinated efforts on North Korea's denuclearization.

kokobj@yna.co.kr
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