- - Sunday, November 18, 2018


New imagery taken by commercial satellites shows that North Korea is continuing to deploy nuclear-capable ballistic missiles at undisclosed bases, according to a study released last week by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

The CSIS study centers on the “Sakkanmol” base, one of between a dozen and 20 such undisclosed bases. It says the base covers several square miles and contains long tunnels sufficient to house 18 mobile missile launch vehicles. What’s news to the public was certainly already known to the Pentagon because our spy satellites pass over North Korea several times a day.

The New York Times and The Washington Post seized upon the CSIS report quickly to insist that President Trump’s diplomatic initiative with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un had failed and that he was being played for a sucker.

There’s some truth in all that, but you’d have to wade through a fog of political harangues to find it.

Begin with the declaration signed by Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim at their June summit. The relevant part of it said that North Korea reaffirmed its earlier commitment to South Korea “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

An agreement to “work toward” denuclearization is not a commitment to denuclearize, to disassemble missiles or warheads or even to slow the deployment of the missiles. It’s not a commitment to do anything except talk further.

Just after the June summit, Mr. Trump tweeted that, “There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.” If only that were true.

Since the June summit, South Korean President Moon Jae-In and Mr. Kim held a second summit in which the latter agreed to close a missile engine test site and take steps to close its Yongbyon nuclear facility. It has closed the Pugganye-ri nuclear test site, but that site is probably no longer usable because the mountain under which it sits would collapse if another nuclear test detonation took place beneath it.

The New York Times quoted a State Department spokesperson responding to the CSIS report as saying, “President Trump has made clear that should Chairman Kim follow through on his commitments, including complete denuclearization and the elimination of ballistic missile programs, a much brighter future lies ahead for North Korea and its people.”

That’s diplomatic nonsense even Foggy Bottom should know better than to utter. There are no such commitments. The results of the June summit were to be pursued in further diplomatic talks which are not progressing.

One of the first things that was supposed to be done was for North Korea to provide a list of all of its missile bases and nuclear weapons, where they are located, and the number and location of facilities that produce those weapons. To no one’s surprise — except perhaps the State Department’s — that list hasn’t been provided.

Mr. Trump’s critics say that he’s been bamboozled and that he’ll take a bad deal such as closing another useless site in exchange for a treaty granting relief from U.S. and international sanctions, which is all North Korea really cares about.

It’s highly unlikely that the president would agree to such foolishness while John Bolton is national security adviser. In August, he said that the Trump administration isn’t “starry-eyed” about North Korea. But at least one of the administration’s actions has made it easier for North Korea to continue its nuclear weapons and missile buildups.

On Nov. 4,, when the president imposed sanctions on Iran’s oil exports, China — perhaps the largest buyer of Iranian crude — was given a six-month exemption from those sanctions.

It’s no secret that China is North Korea’s lifeline, supplying it not only with oil but with advanced military equipment such as the mobile launchers for its missiles. China’s exemption means that for at least the next six months, North Korea’s oil supply is assured.

As this column pointed out in August 2017, Mr. Kim’s regime is so enamored of its nuclear weapons and missiles that it is comprehensively clear that they won’t give up those weapons, or the missiles capable of delivering them, peacefully. And we dare not forget that North Korea is cooperating with Iran in developing nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them.

The status quo is both beneficial and intolerable. It is beneficial in the sense that North Korea has neither detonated another nuclear weapon nor test-fired its long-range missiles so far this year. It is intolerable because North Korea remains a nuclear threat to us and our Pacific region allies.

Mr. Trump’s options for North Korea remain very limited. The economic sanctions that have ravaged Iran’s economy won’t work on North Korea as long as China keeps the Kim regime afloat. And Mr. Moon, after his summit with Mr. Kim in September, appears willing to accept North Korea’s promises of denuclearization despite the fact that Mr. Kim has done nothing to live up to them.

North Korea’s failure to divulge its nuclear capabilities — missiles, warheads, bases and manufactories — makes Mr. Kim’s promises a very bad bet. The restoration of a balance of power on the Korean Peninsula — and in the larger Pacific region — will require deployment by the United States of more anti-missile batteries and, probably, the kind of intermediate-range ballistic missiles previously banned under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty.

• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”

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