Ever since he met with Kim Jong Un last June in Singapore, President Donald Trump has spoken of his North Korean summitry with pride. The nuclear crisis, he has assured the world, is defused.
Diplomacy continues. Sanctions remain.
Experts have known for some time that these talking points were shaky.
On Monday, analysts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) proved it. The center released a report using commercial satellite imagery to show that North Korea continues to work on its missile program at bases throughout the country.
The report focuses on one such facility known as Sakkanmol, near the border with South Korea. That site shields a network of tunnels believed to store mobile launchers that could be moved from missile operating bases to launching sites.
The report says it has uncovered 13 of 20 sites the regime does not acknowledge, suggesting that North Korea’s work on missile development continues even as its nuclear testing has paused.
This ongoing work on the undeclared missile sites stands in stark contrast to North Korea’s much-publicized decommissioning of a nuclear test site. The New York Times, which broke the story Monday, says the new imagery suggests North Korea is engaged in a "great deception" by offering to decommission another launch site while continuing to work on these ones.
That does count as a deception. It does not count as a surprise.
Not only have U.S. intelligence agencies known about the secret missile sites for years, but Kim, the North Korean leader, has also made his intention plain: He plans to make the missiles capable of delivering a nuclear weapon.
In his 2018 New Year’s address, he said his regime was focused on "the final stage of preparation for the test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile," having perfected the physics needed to produce a nuclear warhead.
Nor can the Trump administration claim to be surprised. Over the summer, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acknowledged that North Korea continued to produce nuclear fuel.
The imagery of the missile work and the fuel production raises an important question about how Pompeo and Trump will assess their diplomacy with North Korea. At what point will they conclude that North Korea is not really making progress toward the stated goal of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula?
Finally, there are the U.N. sanctions. Trump has bragged that the sanctions remain in place as negotiations continue for a nuclear deal. But they are looking porous — especially when it comes to North Korea’s most important trading partner, China.
As the South China Morning Post has reported, Chinese companies continue to hire North Korean laborers, a practice the sanctions were supposed to curtail. Meanwhile, South Korea has continued its policy of pursuing smaller projects to test the prospect of unification. The latest is the delivery of 200 tons of tangerines to Pyongyang.
Nicholas Eberstadt, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute and an expert on North Korea, told me the U.S. still has leverage over North Korea’s economy if the nuclear talks fail. Despite what he called "self-inflicted setbacks," he said the U.S. "could compel compliance from China, Russia and South Korea by the immense power of having the world’s reserve currency."
That approach carries its own risks, of course.
North Korea is already threatening to fully resume its nuclear program if the U.S. does not lift sanctions. The nuclear and missile tests that brought East Asia close to war in 2017 would resume if the U.S. more vigorously enforced sanctions on North Korea.
At the same time, the current approach allows Kim to escalate his conflict with the U.S. and its allies at a time of his choosing. What happens when he is done "perfecting" the missiles he needs to deliver the nuclear weapons he is promising to dismantle? It’s a question Trump needs to answer.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun, and UPI. To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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