A satellite image of the Sakkanmol missile base taken on Mar. 29 by DigitalGlobe
Controversy is raging after the New York Times published a Nov. 12 report quoting a report by the think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) which claims that North Korea is developing ballistic missiles at 16 hidden bases and perpetrating a “great deception.” But military and national security experts argued that both the article and report had a number of holes and errors in their arguments.
Satellite images taken in March, 3 months before Singapore summit
As a basis for its claim of “undeclared” missile development by the North, the CSIS report shared 12 satellite images taken on Mar. 29 by the private satellite company Digital Glove, which show the Sakkanmol base in Hwangju County, North Hwanghae Province. The images in question are already eight months old and were taken around three months before the North Korean and US leaders reached their June 12 agreement in Singapore.
“As of November 2018, the base is active and being reasonably well-maintained by North Korean standards,” the report claimed, but no satellite images or other evidence as of November was provided.
It is of course possible that the bases are actually in operation.
“While we can’t really take photographs from eight months ago as representing the current situation, there is a possibility the base facilities remain in place today because of the difficulties in dismantling and relocating a previously operating unit,” said Yang Wook, director of the Korea Defense and Security Forum’s WMD response center.
“It may be that the North did not unilaterally dismantle its base in the absence of any exchanges yet with the US,” Yang suggested.
N. Korea never promised to dismantle “all” missile bases
In a joint statement issued after the June 12 North Korea-US summit in Singapore, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un stated his commitment to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” But the same statement also said that this “work” would take place together with the establishment of “new US-DPRK relations” and “efforts to build a peace regime” on the peninsula.
Pyongyang has stated that these measures and its own denuclearization efforts should proceed under a step-by-step, simultaneous approach. The joint statement does not mention anything about North Korea unilaterally and unconditionally abandoning all of its nuclear weapons, related facilities, and missile bases. Meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at a September inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang, Kim said he was prepared to undertake the initial permanent dismantlement of the engine test site at Tongchang Village under the observation of experts from the relevant countries, and to permanently dismantle the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon in response to corresponding measures from the US.
In spite of that, the New York Times claimed North Korea was perpetrating a “great deception.”
“Since the initial meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim, on June 12 in Singapore, the North has yet to take the first step toward denuclearization: providing the United States with a list of its nuclear sites, weapons, production facilities and missile bases,” the article said.
North Korea and Washington have yet to reach an agreement on the provision of a nuclear list or other concrete denuclearization measures and are currently holding related behind-the-scenes discussions.
Blue House spokesperson Kim Eui-kyum stressed that Pyongyang “never promised to dismantle its missile bases, nor did it sign any agreement obliging it to dismantle its missile bases.”
“It seems inappropriate to refer to that as ‘deception,’” Kim suggested.
Sakkanmol not a “hidden” base
The CSIS report referred to the Sakkanmol base as “undeclared,” while the New York Times characterized it as “hidden.” But in an announcement on Mar. 10, 2016, the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote, “North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles toward the North Korean waters in the East Sea northeast of Wonsan, Kangwon Province, at around 5:20 am today from the area of Sakkanmol, North Hwanghae Province.”
South Korean and overseas news outlets at the time dedicated significant coverage to the launch, noting the presence of an underground Scud missile base in the Sakkanmol area and claiming North Korea had carried out the surprise launch by loading the missile onto a mobile launcher.
“Sakkanmol and the other missile bases mentioned in the report are places that South Korean and US military intelligence authorities have already been watching closely,” a Ministry of National Defense senior official said.
“We’re looking into it, and we are aware that activities to maintain the missile base have continued,” the official added.
The base’s characterization as “undeclared” is also inaccurate. Speaking on condition of anonymity, an expert on the North Korean nuclear program explained, “The obligation to disclose is based on treaties and agreements.”
“North Korea would have to declare its nuclear weapons first for any other suspected facilities to be described as ‘undeclared.’ To call it ‘undeclared’ when there haven’t yet been any declarations is excessive, and comes across as a deliberate attempt to hinder the North Korea-US negotiations,” the expert added.
Furthermore, regarding the CSIS report, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) informed the National Assembly on Nov. 14 that it had already been “keeping tabs” on the Sakkanmol missile base, and that the base has continued to show “normal levels of activity.”
By Noh Ji-won, staff reporter
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