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North’s missile launch could happen anytime

Apr 02,2019
North Korea could be on the brink of a missile launch from a pad on its western coast, said a South Korean official on Monday.

A series of ominous signs - the foremost being the near complete restoration of a missile launch site on the western coast - is fueling speculation that the regime is gearing up to launch its first rocket since its rapprochement with first South Korea and then the United States last year - a move that could reverse a year’s worth of engagement.

Backing up a briefing made by Seoul’s spy chief, Suh Hoon, at South Korea’s National Assembly last Friday, the official said the North’s reconstruction of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, which started in February, is effectively complete, and a launch only needs a go-ahead from leader Kim Jong-un.

Sohae was the site from which the North launched its Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite in February 2016. Kim Jong-un promised South Korean President Moon Jae-in to dismantle Sohae at their Pyongyang summit last September, and some work was done that appeared to be dismantling.

Sources in Seoul had said early last month that the North could launch from Sohae not a warhead but a satellite equipped with new technology brought in from China, shaking Washington out of a protracted stalemate over denuclearization.

North Korea maintains a distinction between testing of military ballistic missiles and launching satellites, which it maintains have a peaceful, scientific purpose. But nuclear experts abroad say the fact that the same type of rockets are used for both purposes makes that difference meaningless. Missile launches of any type by Pyongyang are banned under UN Resolution 1695, adopted in 2006.

Though Pyongyang did not rule out further dialogue after a summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump fell apart in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February, an adamant stance from Washington in terms of demanding an all-in-one denuclearization package has prompted the regime to reconsider the diplomatic approach and return to the provocations of the past.

Testifying to this are last minute cancellations by North Korean diplomats of so-called track-1.5 talks that were to be held in Germany last Wednesday and Finland on Friday. These discussions, involving both government officials and non-state actors from the United States and the two Koreas, were part of Seoul’s plan to push dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang.

According to a South Korean diplomatic source, North Korea initially said Ri Jong-hyok, vice chairman of North Korea’s Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, and Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui would attend each of the conferences, but then informed organizers days before the events that they would not attend. The events had to be canceled as a result, the source said.

Choe’s attendance at the talks was a subject of particular anticipation since she was key to brokering an agreement with the United States’ special representative on North Korea policy, Stephen Biegun, in a similar round of 1.5-track talks in January to hold the Hanoi summit.

But when Trump walked away from a deal at the summit, she was also the regime’s leading voice warning Washington that the North could stop talking altogether and end its self-imposed moratorium on missile tests.

Recent rhetoric from the North’s propaganda machine has backed up those renewed threats, underscoring the notion of self-reliance and the folly of trusting the outside world.

An editorial in the country’s leading state mouthpiece, the Rodong Sinmun, on Monday stressed that “relying on others to achieve prosperity and development is tantamount to suicide,” and that no force in the world wants the see the North “live well and become powerful.”

Washington and Seoul have not remained idle in the face of these alarming signs.

A U.S. reconnaissance aircraft specializing in observing ballistic missiles was deployed to a U.S. air base in Okinawa, Japan, on Saturday, while South Korea sent top officials, such as its foreign and defense ministers, to Washington this week to discuss developments with their counterparts.

According to another government source in Seoul, the Moon Jae-in administration is also mulling sending a special envoy to the North to dissuade it from backtracking on the peace process, an option that the Blue House had apparently ruled out after the Hanoi summit collapsed.

Kim Hyun-chong, the second deputy chief of the Blue House National Security Office, also said this was a “good idea” to reporters in the United States on Saturday before meeting with Charles Kupperman, the U.S. deputy national security adviser. He added that top-down talks should continue, as they have been successful in bringing the relevant parties into discussions thus far.

As he prepares for a summit with Trump scheduled for April 11, Moon himself called on the North during a Blue House conference on Monday to respond to efforts made by the South and the United States toward reaching a solution in the negotiations, stressing the good faith between the leaders that has kept the process rolling despite setbacks.

In a Facebook post on the same day, he also brought up the high stakes involved: “If dialogue [with the North] fails at this moment, the situation will become even worse.”

BY JEONG YONG-SOO, SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]