Suspicious Activity Detected At Facility Tied To North Korean Missile Program

Update: In the latest ominous sign out of North Korea, South Korean intelligence has reportedly spotted "special activities" happening at North Korea’s missile research center in Pyongyang, according to local media reports cited by Bloomberg. Whatever is going on at the missile research center, the intelligence source said they couldn't tell if it began before or after the Hanoi summit.

In other news, President Trump told a group of reporters at the White House on Wednesday that he would be "very disappointed" if reports about Kim rebuilding the long-range missile facility turned out to be true, according to Politico.

"I would be very, very disappointed in Chairman Kim. I don’t think I will be, but we’ll see what happens. We’ll take a look. It will ultimately get solved."

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Mere hours after Kim Jong Un arrived back in Pyongyang after the breakdown in talks with President Trump in Hanoi, the North Korean dictator was greeted by a flurry of western media reports warning that his regime had started rebuilding one of its missile-launch facilities. The reports, which follow a decision by the US and South Korea to again suspend military exercises on the peninsula, suggest that the Kim regime may be hedging its bets and planning to restart its missile tests - which have been halted since November 2017 - if the US refuses to budge on sanctions relief for the North Korean economy, which is suffering through an acute economic crisis.

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Images from commercial satellites appear to confirm warnings from South Korean intelligence that the North has started "rapidly rebuilding" its long-range rocket-launch site at Sohae, according to the New York Times. Construction work at the facility, which was partially dismantled last summer as part of a good-faith gesture by the Kim regime, began before the Hanoi summit, and analysts said it could have started as early as mid-February. The facility is located in Tongchang-ri, a remote area near the northwestern border with China.

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Here are more images of the construction, courtesy of North Korea-focused blog 38 North:

Figure 1. Rail-mounted transfer building is being rebuilt.

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Figure 2. Engine support structure of the engine test stand is being reassembled.

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It's no secret that the North has maintained many secret nuclear and missile testing facilities around the country, and intelligence analysts have warned that Kim may be negotiating in bad faith, hoping to win a modicum of sanctions relief while continuing to pursue the country's nuclear ambitions.

The North claims the site is used to launch satellites as part of its space program, though critics of the regime say this is merely a cover for its role in the country's missile program.

The Tongchang-ri facilities have been vital to North Korea’s space and missile programs. The country has used the facilities there to launch satellite-carrying rockets. The United States has called the satellite program a front for developing intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Mr. Kim visited the rocket engine test site in 2017 when engineers there successfully tested a new high-thrust engine, which was believed to have powered intercontinental ballistic missiles that the North launched months later.

Like the facility at Sohae, the North partially dismantled an engine test site, a rocket launchpad and a rail-mounted building used by engineers to assemble launch vehicles and move missiles to launch pads after the summit with Trump in Singapore. Later, Kim offered to completely destroy these facilities with monitors present as part of a peace offering. That offer, according to the Times, is now in doubt.

To be sure, it's also possible that the North could be rebuilding the facility solely to make disassembling it even more dramatic when the time comes.

With Kim's intentions in doubt, it's worth remembering his suspiciously belligerent remarks during a speech given shortly after New Year's, when Kim said he would seek a "new way" if some of the sanctions facing the country's economy weren't removed, and warned that "a nuclear button is always on my desk."