Movement at North Korea ICBM plant viewed as missile-related, South says

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Movement at North Korea ICBM plant viewed as missile-related, South says

WASHINGTON/SEOUL: New activity has been detected at a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles plant, South Korean media said on Thursday, as U.S. President Donald Trump said he would be very disappointed if Pyongyang rebuilt a rocket site.

Movement of cargo vehicles was spotted recently around a factory at Sanumdong in Pyongyang, which produced North Korea`s first intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching the United States, South Korea`s Joong Ang Ilbo and Donga Ilbo newspapers reported, citing lawmakers briefed by the National Intelligence Service.

Spy chief Suh Hoon told the lawmakers he viewed the activity as missile-related, the Joong Ang Ilbo said. It quoted Suh as saying North Kora continued to run its uranium enrichment facility at the main Yongbyon nuclear complex after the first summit between Trump and its leader, Kim Jong Un, in June in Singapore.

The reports came after the leaders` second summit, in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, broke down last week over differences on the limits North Korea was ready to put on its nuclear program and how willing the U.S. was to ease sanctions.

The Sanumdong factory produced the Hwasong-15 ICBM, which can fly more than 13,000 km (8,080 miles). After its test flight in late 2017, North Korea declared the completion of its “state nuclear force,” before pursuing talks with South Korea and the United States last year.

South Korea`s presidential office and defense ministry declined to confirm the reports on Sanumdong, saying they were closely monitoring North Korea`s activities together with the United States.

The U.S. State Department said it could not comment on intelligence matters.

On Tuesday, two U.S. think tanks and Seoul`s spy agency said work was underway to restore part of the North`s Sohae rocket launch site that Kim, at the Singapore summit, vowed to dismantle.

“I would be very disappointed if that were happening,” Trump told reporters on Wednesday in the Oval Office, when asked if North Korea was breaking a promise.

“It`s a very early report. We`re the ones that put it out. But I would be very, very disappointed in Chairman Kim, and I don`t think I will be, but we`ll see what happens. We`ll take a look. It`ll ultimately get solved.”

Another U.S. research body, Washington-based Stimson Center`s 38 North, weighed in on Thursday, saying the Sohae site appeared to have returned to normal operational status after recent rebuilding work.

Commercial satellite imagery, 38 North said, “indicates construction to rebuild the launch pad and engine test stand that began before the Hanoi summit has continued at a rapid pace.”

White House national security adviser John Bolton said on Thursday that Trump was open to additional talks with North Korea over denuclearization.

“The president`s obviously open to talking again. We`ll see when that might be scheduled or how it might work out,” Bolton said in an interview with Fox News.

Bolton also said it was too soon to make a determination on the reports of North Korea`s missile activities. “We have a lot of ways of getting information,” he said. “We`re going to study the situation carefully. As the president said, it would be very, very disappointing if they were taking this direction.”

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Imagery from Planet Labs Inc analyzed by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California showed activity at Sohae from Feb. 23 until Wednesday.

38 North said photos from Wednesday showed the rail-mounted transfer building used to move rockets at the site was complete, cranes had been removed from the launch pad and the transfer building moved to the end of the pad.

“But we don`t draw any conclusions from that besides they are restoring the facility,” Joel Wit of 38 North told Reuters. “There is no evidence to suggest anything more than that.”

A U.S. government source said the work at Sohae probably began before the summit, which was preceded by lower-level talks in February.  Some analysts see the work at Sohae as aimed at pressing Washington to agree to a deal, rather than as a definite move to resume tests.

The U.S. government source, who did not want to be identified, said North Korea`s plan to rebuild at the site could have been designed to offer a demonstration of good faith by conspicuously stopping again if a summit pact was struck, while furnishing a sign of defiance or resolve if the meeting failed.

Bolton had earlier warned of new sanctions if North Korea does not scrap its weapons program. There have been signs across Asia that Trump`s “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea has sprung leaks.

In a new sanctions breach, three South Korean companies were found to have brought in more than 13,000 tons of North Korean coal, worth 2.1 billion won ($2 million) since 2017, by making it out to have been produced in China and Vietnam, South Korea said. The Hanoi summit`s breakdown, and Bolton`s sanctions threat, raise questions about the future of the dialogue Trump has pursued.

North Korea`s state television aired a 78-minute documentary late on Wednesday showing a stone-faced Bolton during a meeting in Hanoi, while Trump and other U.S. participants were all smiles.

But it focused on showing a cordial mood between Trump and Kim as the summit ended, indicating Pyongyang was not about to walk away from negotiations, experts say.

However, in a return to a more usual, strident tone in North Korea`s state media, the KCNA news agency criticized new small-scale military exercises that the United States and South Korea plan to hold instead of a large-scale spring exercise they have called off.

The news agency said the drills would be a “violent violation” of agreements signed between the United States and North Korea as well as between the two Koreas.

The U.S. and South Korean militaries said last week that they would not carry out a large-scale spring joint military exercises, replacing it with smaller-scale ones.