On November 12 the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) concluded, after studying satellite data and other publicly-available data on North Korea’s missile program, that there were 13 hidden military bases or facilities in North Korea whose existence was hitherto unknown, and which could be used to build missiles or develop missile technology.
Specifically, the document shows satellite photographs of Sakkanmol in Hwangju County, North Hwanghae Province, which were taken on March 29. That location, 85 km north of the Demilitarized Zone and 135 km from Seoul, is the site of a small-range ballistic missile base, which, it is claimed, houses Hwasong 5 and Hwasong 6 missiles. There are seven long tunnels on the site, which can hold up to 18 mobile launching platforms.
On the basis of satellite photographs published in the media and interviews with defectors from North Korea, the CSIS researchers, headed by Joseph Bermudez (who, apparently, has been studying North Korea’s missile capacity since 1985) have identified the locations of more than 65 North Korean military bases, although they have only announced 20 of these, 13 of which they have identified on the map and the rest of which “are still unconfirmed.”
The CSIS experts believe that these “undeclared and secret” missile bases could be used to launch ballistic missiles of all categories, from short-range to intercontinental, and that they therefore ought to be declared, inspected, and dismantled. And while it is possible that not all these facilities are fully operative bases, their very existence nevertheless proves that the North Korean authorities are intent on keeping their real military capacity a secret: it is no coincidence that these facilities are strategically located and camouflaged to protect them in the event of a possible foreign attack.
South Korean media have reported that the news “may have a negative impact on the dialogue between North Korea and the USA, which has anyway lost much of its momentum” and may also raise doubts about North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization. The American New York Times has gone further: it has reported “16 secret bases” and claims that they are evidence of a “great deception.” Citing sources within US intelligence agencies, the newspaper reports that the manufacture of weaponry and fissile materials is continuing in secret. The program to monitor this activity has been put on hold and the early warning system initiated by Barak Obama’s administration and handed over to Donald Trump’s administration has not yet come into effect.
One more important detail mentioned in that article is the fact that the CSIS program for studying North Korea’s military capacity is headed by Victor Cha, who has a reputation as a foreign policy hawk, and was almost appointed by Donald Trump as ambassador to South Korea. In an interview, quoted in the article, Mr. Cha expressed concern that Donald Trump “is going to accept a bad deal” in which North Korea will give up a single nuclear test site and make some other small concessions and in return get a peace agreement that formally ends the Korean War.
Naturally Democrat senator Ed Markey is also critical: he believes Kim Jong-un is using Donald Trump, but no-one will talk with North Korea until Pyongyang has shown that it has made concrete steps towards denuclearization.
Some of the more level-headed experts were quick to point out that Pyongyang has never promised to demolish all its missile bases. As Kelsey Davenport, Director for Nonproliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association, has pointed out, the report is “unsurprising” and contains nothing new. “Kim Jong Un only committed voluntarily to halt long-range missile tests.”
On November 13 the South Korean presidential press secretary, Kim Eui-kyeom, also said that North Korea had not committed to demolishing all its missile bases or declaring all its missile facilities. In fact, the list of those facilities is currently the main stumbling block to progress, and Mike Pompeo may focus on this question in talks with his North Korean counterpart
As for the facilities shown in the recent images, we already have an even higher resolution image, and Seoul is well aware that the Sakkanmol base is used for intercontinental ballistic missiles. As Kim Eui-kyeom went on to say, the South Korean military reported the existence of that base back in March 2016, when it was used for the launch of two short-range missiles, and it is thus not a secret facility, as claimed in the report.
But South Korean opposition deputies rushed to accuse the presidential press secretary of being a mouthpiece for the North Korean Regime. What could he know about the nature of the promises made by North Korea? And a government spokesman had no business defending the position of North Korea (even if – one is tempted to add – it is in the right.)
Especially since on November 14 the Information Committee of the South Korean National Intelligence Service informed the Korean Parliament, in a closed meeting, that “Pyongyang has continued with its nuclear and missile-related activities following the meeting between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump in Singapore.” As Kim Sang-gyun, the second deputy director of the National Intelligence Service, has said: “nuclear and missile-related activity is believed to be going on even after the North Korea – U.S. summit.” He added that this presumably includes nuclear warhead miniaturization. Admittedly no proof was provided to support that assumption: the intelligence services have found no evidence of new missile tests of nuclear weapons, and the official opinion concerning the Sakkanmol site has been confirmed. In a message on his Twitter account, Donald Trump has also said that Washington is aware of the North Korean missile bases, and that the New York Times article is “inaccurate.” He added: “I will be the first to let you know if things go bad!”
John Bolton, the US National Security Advisor, has also said that he is fully aware of what is happening in North Korea and Leon V. Sigal, Director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council, and a former Special Assistant to the Director of the US Department of State’s Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs, has described the article in the New York Times as “misleading”, since the USA and North Korea have not yet signed an agreement inhibiting North Korea’s deployment of missiles, let alone requiring their dismantlement. And as for the issue of short and medium-range missiles, Washington is significantly less concerned about these than it is about intercontinental ballistic missiles.
In short, having such bases does not put North Korea in breach of any of the promises which it made in Singapore. Especially since the report is based on satellite photographs taken in March 2018, and the summit between North Korea and the USA took place in June.
However, during a briefing on November 13, Heather Nauert, Spokesperson for the United States Department of State, emphasized that North Korea’s missiles still pose a threat, and that this has been recognized by UN Security Council resolutions.
It should thus be borne in mind that we are again on the threshold of a new attempt by the USA and North Korea to enter into dialogue, and Donald Trump’s domestic opponents are trying to obstruct it. The strategy is a simple one – a sensational investigation, the main conclusion of which is that North Korea is deceiving the USA by secretly developing the technology that it has promised to forbid and failing to meet its obligations, and that Donald Trump, by allowing this to happen, is an incompetent leader who is unworthy of his position.
To conclude, let us look at the situation from a different angle. All too often, the western or South Korean media interpret declarations made by North Korea in the widest possible way, resulting in dramatic claims such as: “Pyongyang has promised to dismantle its nuclear program.” And then, when discrepancies emerge (and these relate not to the actual agreements but to the claims made about them) then North Korea is accused of breaching the agreement, and the accusation creates a sensation among those people who prefer to take media reports at face value rather than reading the actual documents.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”