North Korea’s ‘dismantling of ballistic missile test site facilities’ draws wary response from experts

North Korea has started to dismantle a key missile test site, in a sign that the country is prepared to obey a commitment it made to the US.

The 38 North website, which monitors the country, said recent satellite images indicate the rogue state began dismantling key facilities at its Sohae Satellite Launching Station in the past two weeks.

A rocket engine test stand used to develop liquid-fuel engines for ballistic missiles is among the facilities that are being taken apart, according to the report.

Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, pledged to destroy a missile engine test site during a historic Singapore summit with Donald Trump, the US president, in June.

Satellite image shows the apparent dismantling of facilities at the Sohae satellite launching station in North KoreaCredit:

“Since these facilities are believed to have played an important role in the development of technologies for the North’s intercontinental ballistic missile program, these efforts represent a significant confidence building measure on the part of North Korea,” Joseph Bermudez, an analyst and expert on North Korea’s weapons programs, wrote in the report.

After his June 12 meeting, Mr Trump said the North Korean leader had told him that the North was “already destroying a major missile engine testing site” without identifying which site. A US official subsequently told Reuters that it was Sohae.

North Korea appears to have started dismantling key facilities at a rocket-engine test center, a group of experts saidCredit:

The leaders concluded their summit by declaring an aspirational goal of moving towards a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.

On Tuesday Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, said the report was “consistent” with the commitments Kim made in Singapore but stressed that the rogue state must “completely, fully denuclearise”.

An official from South Korea’s presidential office confirmed Tuesday that Seoul has also been detecting dismantlement activities at the Sohae launch site in recent days.

Jenny Town, managing editor of 38 North, which is based at Washington’s Stimson Centre, said the work at Sohae could be an important move to keep negotiations going.

"This could (and that’s a big could) mean that North Korea is also willing to forgo satellite launches for the time being as well as nuclear and missile tests. This distinction has derailed diplomacy in the past," she said.

However analysts have expressed scepticism over whether the current steps reduce the North’s military capability or represent a material step toward denuclearisation.

Adam Mount, a senior defence analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, said it was troubling that the state has been unilaterally dismantling parts of its nuclear and missile facilities without the presence of international inspectors.

"Dismantling the engine test stand is a good move, but about the bare minimum that can be done at the site," said Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California.  

"Unless they dismantle the whole site, it will remain it will remain North Korea’s premier location for space launches."

She added: "North Korea does not need the Sohae engine test stand anymore if it is confident in the engine design. As Kim Jong-un said himself, North Korea is moving from testing to mass production."

On Friday, senior US officials called on Kim to act on his promise to give up his nuclear weapons and said the world, including China and Russia, must continued to enforce sanctions on Pyongyang until he does so.

On Monday, the US State Department issued an advisory together with the departments of Treasury and Homeland Security alerting businesses to North Korea’s sanctions-evasion tactics.

The move potentially marks a significant step after last month's summit between Kim Jong-un and President Donald TrumpCredit:

It said they should "implement effective due diligence policies, procedures, and internal controls to ensure compliance with applicable legal requirements across their entire supply chains."

In a tweet early on Monday, Mr Trump rejected "Fake News" that he was angry because progress was not happening fast enough with North Korea.

"Wrong, very happy!" he said in the Tweet.

A report in The Washington Post at the weekend said that in spite of positive assessments Mr Trump has given on progress with North Korea, he has vented anger at aides over a lack of immediate progress.

Last week, Mr Trump said there was "no rush" and "no time limit" on denuclearization negotiations.

US Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said on Thursday it was technically possible for North Korea to eliminate its nuclear weapons program within a year, but added that it was not likely to happen. 

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