It appears that North Korea has started dismantling key facilities at its “Sohae Satellite Launch Site” located in Dongchang-ri, North Pyongan Province. 38 North, a U.S. website devoted to monitoring North Korea, said the commercial satellite imagery of the launch pad from July 20 and 22 shows that dismantling of the rail-mounted processing/transfer structure has started. North Korea has not demonstrated a determination to denuclearize for over 40 days since the June 12 U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore. This time, North Korea seems to have made a gesture towards denuclearization in order to continue to talk with the United States as some argue that the U.S. patience with North Korea is wearing thin.
The launch site in Dongchang-ri has been used as a major launching station since 2012 and is where the Hwasong-15, an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) developed by North Korea, was launched. The beginning of the dismantling of such major facilities is a positive sign that can work as a catalyst in resolving the nuclear standoff between the United States and North Korea. Strictly speaking, however, dismantlement of these facilities has nothing to do with the nature of denuclearization and is something North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had already promised during the Singapore meeting. For U.S. President Donald Trump, it could be something that can be used as a publicity stunt but North Korea still has many manufacturing facilities and mid-and long-range missiles that are capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
The U.S. Departments of State, Treasury and Homeland Security yesterday jointly issued a 17-page document titled “North Korea Sanctions and Enforcement Advisory Notice.” The United States may have thought that there would be no progress in denuclearization unless it forces North Korea to change its fundamental attitude. This is the second time that the United States issued an advisory notice this year since it released advisory on North Korea’s deceptive maritime practices in February.
In particular, the United States has urged strong caution against North Korea’s deceptive practices to evade sanctions such as exporting goods via Russia and China. Although the United States did not mention North Korean coal-smuggling ships coming into South Korean ports, South Korea could undermine the sanctions against North Korea if the Moon Jae-in administration continues to be passive in dealing with the issue.
What the South Korean government should do at this stage is to persuade the North to make progress in denuclearization, thereby resolving the standoff created by the North by demanding the United States to sign a peace treaty ending the Korean war before denuclearization talks can continue. The United States has made it clear that it has no intention of declaring end of war or signing a peace treaty unless the North takes concrete measures to demonstrate its determination for denuclearization. To be sure, some sanctions need to be lifted for the sake of economic cooperation between the two Koreas but the most pressing and key challenge at the moment is to straighten out the situation and work towards denuclearization.