U.S. officials have identified the rocket engine test site that President Donald Trump said the North Korean regime had promised to destroy during the Singapore summit last week.
The facility is known as the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground, at Ch’olsan in North Pyongan, according to CBS News, which first reported the location. The revelation adds specificity to the vague promises Trump has said Kim Jong-Un made toward denuclearization, but arms control observers say destruction of this particular site is not a significant concession and certainly does not qualify as denuclearization. Other Pentagon officials said that they had seen no new moves toward the dismantling of any sites other than what had been previously reported.
The testing site is known to observers of North Korea’s nuclear weapons development. In 2012, the open-source intelligence and analysis site 38 North observed a flurry of new construction activity at the site, followed by tests of liquid-fuel rocket engines of unprecedented power for the North Koreans, potentially able to loft nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles. Later that year, the site hosted the launch of an Unha-3 satellite, and still later, it was key to developing the Hwasong-15 ICBM.
But in 2018, the Sohaie site’s relevance had long waned, say some arms control experts.
“I don’t want to be churlish, but this is like the closure of the nuclear test site” at Punggye-ri, Middlebury College researcher Jeff Lewis said. “It’s showy and an important facility, but in isolation it doesn’t mean much. There are other sites for static engine testing and could be easily rebuilt. It’s a gesture toward the idea of disarmament more than disarmament itself.”
Dave Schmerler, a research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, described the site as “their biggest missile engine test stand” and “the focal point for their most powerful engine tests to date.”
“Removing it would be a start toward something,” he said, But “it is not a major step. They could always build another one excluding the other test sites across the country. That’s if they even do it.”
Since the Singapore summit, Trump has been criticized for giving away too much, including halting major U.S. military exercises in South Korea, in return for vague North Korean promises about denuclearization. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said this week there was no sign of denuclearization yet, and that change in exercise schedule will be worked out when he meets Friday with National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Mattis is scheduled to discuss those details further with Chinese and South Korean officials next week in Beijing and Seoul.