Tue, Mar 12, 2019 - Page 1 News List

S Korea ‘closely tracking’ North for signs of a launch


North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, second right, inspects a Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile in North Korea’s northwest on July 4, 2017.

Photo: Korean Central News Agency / Korea News Service via AP

South Korea’s military yesterday said that it was closely monitoring North Korean facilities after a series of satellite images triggered international alarm that Pyongyang might be preparing a long-range missile or space launch.

South Korea is “closely tracking and looking into all activity for possible scenarios including a missile launch” across the border, South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman Kim Joon-rak said.

However, some analysts said that the North might be stage-managing activity at certain key sites to stoke concern and secure “better terms” in denuclearization talks.

Washington wants what administration officials have called a “big deal,” with the complete elimination of weapons of mass destruction in return for the dropping of sanctions that have strangled the economy of the North.

North Korea favors a more step-by-step approach, with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un proposing dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear complex in exchange for lifting the main sanctions — a notion that US President Donald Trump refused.

“The North could be trying to show the US it can always turn back to aggressive posture by rebuilding missile sites in order to gain leverage in future talks, but without actually firing a missile or rocket,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the private Sejong Institute. “It is hard to rule out the possibility of a rocket launch at the Sohae station at this point, as North Korea has proven time and time again it can do unexpected things.”

Experts are divided over Pyongyang’s plans, but whatever its intentions, a launch would affect the fragile US-North Korea relationship.

“This is North Korea’s classic brinkmanship on display again,” said Lim Eul-chul, professor of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University. “The North’s intention is clear. It wants early resumption of talks with the US, but on better terms.”

Veteran North Korea watchers said that any activity is likely to be finely calibrated and could also be intended to send a clear message within the administration in Pyongyang.

“Kim could use a launch to demonstrate at the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly, probably in mid-April, that he has not been cowed by sanctions,” said former US negotiator Joel Wit, now the director of the 38 North Web site.

Satellite analysis indicates increased activity at two key sites — the Samundong missile research facility and the Sohae rocket launch center.

Samundong, which is on the outskirts of Pyongyang, was built in 2012 to support development of long-range missiles and space-launch vehicles.

Chun In-bum, a North Korea expert and a retired South Korean three-star general, said it was “too early” to conclude that the North was preparing for another rocket launch at Sohae.

However, he said that if the North went ahead, the US would be “forced to react,” whether it turned out to be a missile test or a satellite launch.

North Korea has been banned by the UN Security Council from carrying out space launches, as some of its technology was similar to that used for intercontinental ballistic missiles.

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