The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on Sunday that analysis of satellite images by a private-sector watchdog group suggests North Korea recently completed expanding one of its most important missile manufacturing plants, a development that casts some doubt on Pyongyang’s enthusiasm for dismantling its nuclear and missile programs
The new analysis comes from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, and is based on satellite photos provided by Planet Labs Inc. of San Francisco. The facility in question is called the Chemical Material Institute of Hamhung.
North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un sketched out plans to expand the Hamhung facility during a visit in August, and those expansions now appear to be completed, even though construction did not begin in earnest until after Kim’s landmark summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April. A more modest amount of work appears to have been completed at two nearby missile production facilities as well.
“The expansion of the production infrastructure for North Korea’s solid-fuel missile infrastructure probably suggests that Kim Jong Un does not intend to abandon his nuclear and missile programs,” said researcher David Schmerler of the Middlebury Institute’s Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
As the WSJ goes on to explain, solid-fuel rockets are a relatively small and new part of North Korea’s arsenal and currently lack the range to threaten the continental United States, but they can hit Japan and South Korea, and they can be launched with much less warning than liquid-fueled missiles.
The Hamhung facility also plays an important role in North Korea’s quest to develop re-entry shielding that could protect the nuclear warhead on an intercontinental missile when it returns to Earth’s atmosphere after flying through space. The lack of good re-entry shielding is thought to be one of the last technical obstacles preventing North Korea from mounting a nuclear warhead on an ICBM.
This is the second recent non-governmental analysis in the past week to suggest North Korea is moving forward with nuclear missile research despite promises to denuclearize. Last Tuesday, 38 North analyzed commercial satellite images and concluded North Korea is making infrastructure improvements to its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon.
On Saturday, the Washington Post quoted unnamed U.S. officials and an unreleased Defense Intelligence Agency estimate to argue that the U.S. intelligence community has grave doubts about North Korea’s willingness to denuclearize. This assessment was presented as a “stark contrast” with President Donald Trump’s “exuberant comments” after his own summit with Kim Jong-un.
“The new intelligence, described by four officials who have seen it or received briefings, is based on material gathered in the weeks since the summit,” the Post reported. “Specifically, the DIA has concluded that North Korean officials are exploring ways to deceive Washington about the number of nuclear warheads and missiles, and the types and numbers of facilities they have, believing that the United States is not aware of the full range of their activities.”
U.S. officials told NBC News on Saturday that North Korea “may have recently increased production of fuel for nuclear weapons at multiple secret sites.”