President Trump on Tuesday dismissed reports that North Korea is operating more than a dozen “undeclared” missile sites, suggesting the development won’t derail a potential second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that administration officials say they hope can occur early next year.
With several regional analysts arguing that the Kim regime technically hasn’t flouted any agreement with the U.S. — because no concrete denuclearization deal between Washington and Pyongyang has been signed — Mr. Trump downplayed the reports of ongoing North Korean missile activity as “nothing new.”
The president tweeted Tuesday that the U.S. has long been aware of the North’s Sakkanmol missile base and more than a dozen other sites across the reclusive country, and South Korean officials said they also knew about the facilities revealed this week by researchers at a Washington think tank.
Mr. Trump’s critics have latched on to the information — profiled in a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies — as proof that Mr. Kim is playing him on the world stage.
But North Korea analysts told The Washington Times on Tuesday that the missile sites and activities outlined in the report could provide more incentive for the administration to increase pressure on the Kim regime in ongoing talks toward a verifiable, step-by-step denuclearization pact with Pyongyang.
They also warned that overhyping the CSIS report could undermine those delicate talks at a crucial moment, five months after Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim held their first summit and in the lead-up to a potential second face-to-face meeting.
“I’d say the activity is a violation but not a deception. It’s a violation of numerous United Nations resolutions,” said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA official and senior fellow specializing in Northeast Asia at The Heritage Foundation.
“The continued existence every day of nukes and missiles is itself a daily violation,” Mr. Klingner said.
“Now, it’s not necessarily a breach of the summit agreement,” he said, referring to the meeting in June between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim in Singapore. “The summit agreements are so terse that they haven’t gotten to any details which would require North Korea to do any of the things it’s required to do under the U.N. resolutions.”
After the Singapore summit, Mr. Trump said he had achieved a major breakthrough with North Korea and that lasting denuclearization was on the horizon. The White House has promised Pyongyang that it would lift harsh economic sanctions and facilitate financial investment into the country once its nuclear weapons program is completely and verifiably shuttered.
But there has been little in the way of tangible progress on denuclearization since June. Both countries have made broad agreements in principle, but a detailed, long-term deal has yet to materialize.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was scheduled to meet with top North Korean officials in New York last week, but the North Koreans canceled. Administration officials say they are trying to reschedule the meeting.
Analysts say such regular and high-level contact is critical to hammering out specific details of denuclearization and establishing a timetable for certain actions.
Mr. Trump also wants another meeting with Mr. Kim early next year. The president said Tuesday that the reports of undeclared missile sites in no way changes his approach despite some media characterizing the news as a death knell for negotiations.
The New York Times said Monday in its report on the CSIS findings that North Korea was engaged in a “great deception” of the president and the rest of the world.
“The story in The New York Times concerning North Korea developing missile bases is inaccurate,” Mr. Trump tweeted Tuesday. “We fully know about the sites being discussed, nothing new — and nothing happening out of the normal. Just more Fake News. I will be the first to let you know if things go bad!”
South Korean presidential spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom said Seoul is aware of the facilities and that they underscore the need for faster, more serious negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.
Regional analysts also took aim at the way the CSIS findings were portrayed in the press. They argued that the news was being spun to make it appear that Pyongyang was blatantly disregarding agreements with the U.S. and actively ramping up its nuclear and missile programs.
“The United States and North Korea have yet to conclude an agreement that inhibits deployment of missiles by Pyongyang, never mind requiring their dismantlement. Nor has Washington yet offered the necessary reciprocal steps that might make such a deal possible,” said Leon V. Sigal, director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council.
“There is more than enough to do in negotiating constraints on and the elimination of North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats without exaggerating them and prematurely accusing Pyongyang of bad faith or calling into question President Trump’s wisdom for trying nuclear diplomacy in earnest,” Mr. Sigal wrote in a commentary published Tuesday by 38 North, a North Korea-focused website.
The CSIS report on Pyongyang’s missile activity cast the Sakkanmol facility as an “undeclared operational missile base for short-range ballistic missiles.” The think tank’s research team, led by Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., an analyst of North Korean defense and intelligence affairs, said the site was “one of 13 out of an estimated 20 undeclared North Korean missile operating bases identified” by satellite imagery and reporting.
The report did not, however, discuss negotiations with the U.S. or whether these sites represented any kind of violation of denuclearization deals.
“It’s a straightforward imagery analysis that was a bit overhyped,” Mr. Klingner said of the CSIS research.
Others say the pressure is now on the Kim regime and that a failure to produce real results will prove only that the regime was never serious.
“I am completely confident that the president has been well-informed of the North’s activities by the intelligence community but he will continue to test and give Kim Jong-un a chance to demonstrate sincerity to actually dismantle his nuclear program,” said David Maxwell, a retired U.S. Special Forces colonel and fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“The question remains if Kim Jong-un will allow his negotiators to come to the table and actually get down to work,” said Mr. Maxwell. “Failure to do so is a real indication of his intent.”
⦁ Gabriella Muñoz contributed to this report.