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North Korea Reassembles Rocket Test Site, Satellite Images Show


Well, it took less than a week. North Korea has returned to work on a facility used to test rocket engines and put satellites into space. North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, and President Trump failed to reach an agreement in Vietnam last week to curtail North Korea's weapons ambitions. This construction appears to be underway. It had been stopped after the two leaders first met last year. But new satellite images of the launch site are a sign that any possible nuclear deal between these two countries is very, very far off. Joining me in the studio this morning is Joel Wit. He worked on this very issue at the State Department and now directs 38 North, a website that reports on North Korea.

Joel, thanks for coming in, as always.

JOEL WIT: Good morning.

GREENE: So am I right? Your site actually published these satellite photos, right?

WIT: Yes, we got the photos yesterday from commercial satellites, which watch this site regularly, and published them last night.

GREENE: What exactly do they show?

WIT: They show two things. Essentially, North Korea's starting to restore the facilities that it began to dismantle last spring, and by that, I mean restore rocket engine test stand where they test rocket engines, and secondly, restore buildings on the launchpad where they fire the satellites into space.

GREENE: So I want to be really careful with the timing here. You say you got these photos yesterday. We're a week away now from when President Trump and Kim did not reach a deal and left Vietnam without a deal. Do we know that this work on this facility has been done since this summit broke up?

WIT: Well, that's a good question. And we don't know for sure exactly when this work started because we don't get photos every day. So we know it started either before or just after. And in either case, it's a step backwards.

GREENE: How significant a step backwards?

WIT: You know, I think the North Koreans are sending us a signal, a signal that these negotiations need to move forward or else they are going to restore their test programs. But right now, I wouldn't get too worked up about it. We need to watch closely what's going to happen next.

GREENE: OK, so just listening to you there and trying to piece this together - this is not necessarily alarming in terms of North Korea's capabilities. It is, though, in terms of interpreting what sort of signs Kim is sending to the United States and to Donald Trump.

WIT: Yes, I think it's - that's exactly the case. I think it's signaling us that the North Koreans are becoming impatient with the slow pace of these discussions. And now with the summit collapsing the way it did, there may be signs of even greater impatience on their part.

GREENE: So this site - was this site discussed in either of these summits? I mean, was this the kind of place that President Trump would have told the North Koreans to dismantle or to stop work on when the two leaders would sit down?

WIT: Well, I don't know what President Trump has said to Kim Jong Un about this site. But the North Koreans, first of all, said they were going to begin dismantling this site last spring, and that's what they started to do. And secondly, at this summit, in the press conference afterwards held by North Korean officials, they said they were willing to sign up to a ban on missile testing and nuclear testing. And, by implication, that would mean they don't - they wouldn't use this site anymore.

GREENE: You say growing impatience. I mean, it's always - as you know better than anyone in the world, probably - difficult to understand exactly what sort of messages North Korea is sending. Is this a sign that, I mean, they really might not be willing to come back to the negotiating table? Is this sort of, like, you know, one day we might hear one thing, one day another?

WIT: Well, this is the joy of working with the North Koreans. You really don't know whether it's a sign that they're running out of patience and are going to move to start activities you're not going to like or if it's a tactic to step up pressure and to get better deals out of the negotiations.

GREENE: What are you doing right now if you were in the State Department under President Trump, in terms of advising the White House on how to respond?

WIT: Well, you know, since I spent 15 years as a bureaucrat, I can tell you they're writing options papers. And there's always three options in the paper. And usually, the middle option is the one they want the president to take. And what those options would be, I can't tell for sure. But I bet you they range from let's get back to negotiations to head off any more problems to let's figure out how we can impose more sanctions on the North Koreans.

GREENE: I just want to return to this site. I mean, it's so confusing sometimes to understand what one site that launches satellites and test rocket engines means in this - the larger picture of North Korea's nuclear capabilities. What role does this site play? Is it important?

WIT: Well, it gets complicated, as you might imagine. This site is to launch satellites into space, and that means it has space launch vehicles. They're not intercontinental ballistic missiles.

GREENE: The kinds that Kim threatened to, like, send to Guam and so forth.

WIT: Right. So the connection is that when you develop a space launch vehicle and you launch it, some of the technologies you use to do that are also applicable to ballistic missiles that can carry nuclear warheads. And so that's been the big concern all along.

GREENE: Let me just finish by asking you - you know, I don't want to ask you to predict. But are you still optimistic that there's a negotiating window here for Kim and for President Trump as we look forward to the next six, 12 months? Or might this be a moment when that window's closing?

WIT: Well, I want to be realistic about it. And what I would say is that I feel there is a window. But the North Koreans are sending a signal that they're not going to wait forever. And I think that's the point here.

GREENE: Joel Wit is a longtime State Department official, now runs the website 38 North and published some of these satellite photos that are giving us a picture of what's happening at one site in North Korea. Joel, thanks so much. We appreciate it always.

WIT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.