National Security Adviser John Bolton tried to tamp down speculation about prospect of North Korea test-launching a missile after recent commercial satellite imagery appearing to show cranes rebuilding a key launch site that Pyongyang had vowed to destroy.
“There’s a lot of activity all the time in North Korea, but I’m not going to speculate on what that particular commercial satellite picture shows,” said Mr. Bolton, who asserted that U.S. intelligence is watching activity inside North Korea “constantly.”
“We see exactly what they’re doing now,” Mr. Bolton said on ABC’s “This Week.” “We see it unblinkingly, and we don’t have any illusions about what their capabilities are.”
Mr. Bolton, who has advocated for regime change in Pyongyang and is known as the administration official with perhaps the most hard-line views on North Korea, stuck broadly to a message President Trump himself has pushed in recent days.
Mr. Trump responded cautiously Wednesday to reports that North Korea has been restoring its long-range Tongchang-ri rocket launch site, which it had promised to dismantle following the president’s first summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in June.
The president told reporters in the Oval Office he would be “disappointed” if new rocket activity is occurring in North Korea, but he also questioned the veracity of “very early reports” on the matter, which emerged as the administration scrambled to assess the fallout from the breakdown of Mr. Trump’s more recent summit with Mr. Kim in Vietnam.
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An article from 38 North, a website specializing in North Korea security issues, cited the commercial satellite imagery as appearing to show that efforts to rebuild some structures at Tongchang-ri started sometime between Feb. 16 and March 2 — suggesting the activity may have been occurring while Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump were meeting in Hanoi on Feb. 28 and 29.
A high-level source familiar with the U.S.-North Korea negotiations suggested the reports were overblown, telling The Washington Times last week the activity at Tongchang-ri was likely “nothing more than routine maintenance.”
But the stakes around the latest developments are high.
Mr. Bolton stressed that Mr. Trump still believes it is “a positive sign” that North Korea has not carried out a nuclear detonation or ballistic missile test since the Trump administration’s diplomatic push with Pyongyang began in earnest last year.
The national security advisor said he would “rather not speculate” on whether a sudden missile or rocket launch by the North Koreans at this time would scuttle the prospect of future talks with Pyongyang.
“The president’s confident in his personal relationship with Kim Jong-un, he’s invested a lot of time in trying to develop that relationship,” he said. “[Mr. Trump] said he’s open to a third summit, none has been scheduled, and some time may have to go by. But he’s prepared to engage again.”
But Mr. Bolton stressed that Mr. Trump is “determined to avoid the mistakes prior presidents have made.”
“One mistake that prior administrations made repeatedly was assuming that the North Koreans would automatically comply when they undertake obligations,” he said. “The North Koreans for example, have pledged to give up their nuclear weapons program at least five separate times, beginning in 1992 with the joint North/South denuclearization agreement. They never seem to get around to it though. So that’s one reason why we pay particular attention to what North Korea is doing all the time.”