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Activity seen at ICBM center near Pyongyang

Mar 08,2019
Activity was recently spotted at North Korea’s Sanumdong research facility, associated with the country’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program, revealed Suh Hoon, the director of the South’s National Intelligence Service (NIS).

The JoongAng Ilbo reported Thursday that Suh told lawmakers following a closed-door meeting at the National Assembly Tuesday that vehicles transporting supplies were spotted at the Sanumdong facility and “were seen as missile-related activities.”

Sanumdong, on the outskirts of Pyongyang, is a key military site where at least two Hwasong-15 ICBMs, which could potentially reach the U.S. mainland, were manufactured.

U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House on Wednesday he would be “very, very disappointed” in North Korean leader Kim Jong-un if recent reports that North Korea is rebuilding a missile launch site in Tongchang-ri is true. He continued, “I don’t think I will be,” calling it “a very early report” and reiterated his faith in Kim.

Trump said there is a “nasty problem” in reference to North Korea, while maintaining that his “relationship is good” with Kim and that it will “ultimately get solved.”

The NIS, South Korea’s top spy agency, along with U.S. experts at the Center for Strategic Studies’ Beyond Parallel project and 38 North, confirmed earlier this week that North Korea had resumed activities at its Tongchang-ri missile engine test site in North Pyongan Province - also known as the Sohae Satellite Launching Station - for the first time since last summer. Those conclusions were based on satellite imagery.

A two-day summit between Kim and Trump in Hanoi last week abruptly ended without a deal, the two leaders unable to reach compromise as the North demanded sanctions relief while the United States called for measures in addition to the dismantlement of the Yongbyon nuclear complex.

Trump said in a solo press conference in Hanoi immediately after walking away from the summit on Feb. 28, “One of the things, importantly, that Chairman Kim promised me last night is, regardless, he’s not going to do testing of rockets and nuclear … I take him at his word.” Hinting at U.S. intelligence of North Korea’s undisclosed missiles facilities, Trump said that he brought up during the talks “many points up that I think they were surprised that we knew.”

Security analysts consider Sanumdong to be a notch above the Tongchang-ri launching site, which Kim has already pledged to dismantle, as it is where missiles are assembled, produced and tested.

It is not clear, however, if the activities at Sanumdong began before or after the aborted North-U.S. summit.

Washington has been especially sensitive to Pyongyang’s ICBM capabilities and could have called for the North to take further action on its ICBM sites such as Sanumdong, or undisclosed uranium enrichment facilities.

North Korea is also “operating normally” its uranium enrichment facility at its Yongbyon nuclear complex, NIS Chief Suh was quoted by the JoongAng Ilbo as telling the parliamentary Intelligence Committee Tuesday.

Lawmakers on the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee did not include this information in a briefing they gave reporters in a meeting Tuesday, though the NIS had confirmed that the main 5-megawatt plutonium-producing reactor has been shut down since the end of last year.

According to one lawmaker who took part in the briefing Tuesday, Suh said that the uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon “is seen to have been in normal operation from before the summit.”

While U.S. analysts have been speculating that the uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon is still in operation, this is the first time the South Korean government has confirmed this. Yukiya Amano, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said Monday that North Korea is still using the uranium enrichment facility in Yongbyon.

U.S. nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the U.S. Los Alamos weapons laboratory and Stanford University professor, visited the uranium enrichment facility at the Yongbyon complex to see 2,000 centrifuges in November 2010.

The South’s intelligence and military authorities estimate that North Korea can produce some 80 kilograms (176.3 pounds) of enriched uranium annually in facilities aside from Yongbyon.

North Korea’s missile activities could indicate a turnaround from Kim Jong-un’s pledges against nuclear or missile testing, or a move to pressure the United States after negotiations fell apart at the second summit. Kim, in a New Year’s address, warned if Washington persisted with its sanctions, he might have to “find a new way.”

“We are closely monitoring North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities, including the Tongchang-ri and Sanumdong sites,” said Choi Hyun-soo, spokesperson for the South Korean Ministry of National Defense, in a briefing in Seoul Thursday on the reports of activity at the North’s missile-related sites.

“We are also maintaining a close cooperation system between the South-U.S. military and intelligence authorities on this.”

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]