As it grows increasingly frustrated with the US's refusals to begin lifting economic sanctions in recognition of all the "progress" made during the Trump era, North Korea threatened a week ago to restart its nuclear program if the US doesn't acquiesce to its demands for a "gradual" lifting of economic sanctions accompanied by a similarly gradual program of surrendering the North's nuclear weapons.
However, these threats rang hollow and failed to elicit a response from the Trump Administration. And now we know why: because Trump while is worried about letting what he sees as one of his biggest foreign policy achievements slip through his grasp, the US intelligence apparatus has long known that North Korea never really stopped enriching uranium and building missiles.
Much fanfare followed North Korea leader Kim Jong Un's declaration, following a summit with his South Korean counterpart earlier this year, that the North would allow international observers to document the dismantling of a nuclear reactor, as well as several missile sites where the country tested the ICBMs that provoked so much anxiety back in 2017. But a report published by the New York Times on Monday definitively dispelled this myth by exposing a "secret" North Korean missile launch site near the South Korean border that would be capable of launching a nuclear warhead at the US.
Little more than 50 miles north of the DMZ, Sakkanmol is one of the closest bases to South Korea, sitting about 80 miles away from the densely populated capital of Seoul. American troops are also in close range. The images, reportedly culled from the report highlighted the different structures at Sakkanmol, including a suspected ballistic missile operating base and an "unidentified military facility."
They also highlighted support buildings and greenhouses.
And while Sakkanmol is the focus of the report, it isn't the only missile base mentioned. One map seen by the Times revealed three belts of missile bases capable of firing everything short-range tactical missiles that could fire on Seoul, to the feared ICBMs that could reach American shores. In seemingly offhanded fashion, the report mentions that the North has between 40 and 60 nuclear warheads that could be loaded on a missile and blasted at the US.
According to intelligence analysts quoted by the NYT, the North's motives are fairly obvious. By keeping the missile bases open, the kingdom is hedging its bets. If talks with Trump don't work out, it still has a fallback to ensure its survival. And even if the North and South declare an end to the Korean War, the missile sites mean that the threat from the North will persist.
The North Korea experts who have examined the images believe that the North’s motivations are fairly easy to interpret. "It looks like they’re trying to maximize their capabilities," Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., a co-author of the report and a veteran analyst of satellite images of North Korea, said in an interview. "Any missile at these bases can take a nuclear warhead."
"The level of effort that North Korea has invested in building these bases and dispersing them is impressive," he added. "It’s very logical from a survival point of view."
Weapons experts, as well as Mr. Pompeo, say that North Korea, despite engaging in denuclearization talks, continues to produce the fissile material that fuels nuclear arms. The North is believed to have about 40 to 60 nuclear warheads.
What's worse, while the North has been slowly building up its nuclear program without the threat of angering the US, its government has been undermining the sanctions regime by building a stronger relationship with Beijing and Moscow, which are doing more to help prop up the regime. All of this supports the notion that the North is merely stalling, that it has no intention of ever meaningfully unwinding its nuclear program, and essentially wants to have its cake and eat it too: Retain its nuclear arms, while being welcomed back into the world of international trade and commerce.
And, if its nuclear program continues without any meaningful resistance, it just might succeed. Now, we wait to see if this news prompts the Trump administration to alter its plans for another summit between Trump and Kim.