By David Brunnstrom and Hyonhee Shin
WASHINGTON/SEOUL - U.S. President Donald Trump is open to more talks with North Korea over denuclearization, his national security adviser said on Thursday, despite reports it is reactivating parts of its missile programme.
New activity has been detected at a factory that produced North Korea’s first intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching the United States, South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo and Donga Ilbo newspapers reported, citing lawmakers briefed by the National Intelligence Service.
This week, two U.S. think-tanks and Seoul’s spy agency said North Korea was rebuilding its Sohae rocket launch site, prompting Trump to say he would be “very, very disappointed” in North Korean leader Kim Jong Un if it were true. The think tanks said on Thursday that they believed the launch site was operational again.
Asked on Thursday if he was disappointed about recent North Korean activity, Trump told reporters: “It’s disappointing,” while adding without elaborating: “We’ll see. We’ll let you know in about a year.”
The reports of North Korean activity raise more questions about the future of the dialogue Trump has pursued with Kim after a second summit between them broke down in Vietnam last week.
White House National Security Adviser John Bolton, who has argued for a tough approach to North Korea, said Trump was still open to more talks with the country.
“The president’s obviously open to talking again. We’ll see when that might be scheduled or how it might work out,” he told Fox News, adding it was too soon to make a determination on the reports of the North Korean activity.
“We’re going to study the situation carefully. As the president said, it would be very, very disappointing if they were taking this direction.”
The Vietnam summit on Feb. 27-28 collapsed over differences about how far North Korea was willing to limit its nuclear program and the degree of U.S. willingness to ease economic sanctions.
North Korea’s state media, which had focused its reporting on the “constructive” talks between the leaders, reported for the first time on Friday that the summit ended with no agreement.
The official Rodong Sinmun newspaper accused Japan of trying to “disturb” North Korea’s relations with the United States and said Japan had “applauded” the breakdown of the summit while the rest of the world regretted it.
Trump, eager for a big foreign policy win on North Korea, which has eluded his predecessors for decades, has repeatedly stressed his good relationship with Kim. He went as far late last year as saying they “fell in love,” but the bonhomie has failed to bridge the wide gap between the two sides.
‘NO COMMITMENT YET’
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday he was hopeful he would send a delegation to North Korea for more talks in the next couple of weeks, but that he had received “no commitment yet.”
A senior State Department official told reporters on Thursday that Washington was keen to resume talks as soon as possible, but North Korea’s negotiators needed to be given more latitude than they were ahead of the summit.
He said no one in the U.S. administration advocated the incremental approach that North Korea has been seeking and the condition for its integration into the global economy, a transformed relationship with the United States and a permanent peace regime, was complete denuclearization.
“Fundamentally, where we really need to see the progress, and we need to see it soon, is on meaningful and verifiable steps on denuclearization. That’s our goal and that’s how we see these negotiations picking up momentum.”
The official, who did not want to be identified, said the U.S. side still saw North Korea’s complete denuclearization as achievable within Trump’s current term, which ends in January 2021.
While the official said he would “not necessarily share the conclusion” that the Sohae site was operational again, any use of it would be seen as “backsliding” on commitments to Trump.
“We are watching in real-time developments at Sohae and we will definitely be seeking clarification on the purposes of that,” he said.
South Korean spy chief Suh Hoon told lawmakers in Seoul that cargo vehicles were spotted moving around a North Korean ICBM factory at Sanumdong recently, the JoongAng Ilbo reported.
The paper also quoted Suh as saying North Korea had continued to run its uranium enrichment facility at the main Yongbyon nuclear complex after Trump and Kim’s first summit in Singapore last June.
The Sanumdong factory produced the Hwasong-15 ICBM, which can fly more than 13,000 km (8,080 miles). After a test flight in 2017, North Korea declared the completion of its “state nuclear force” before pursuing talks with South Korea and the United States last year.
Separately, Washington’s 38 North and Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tanks reported on Thursday that the North’s Sohae site, which Kim pledged in Singapore to dismantle, appeared to be operational again after rebuilding work that began days before the Hanoi summit.
“The rebuilding activities at Sohae demonstrate how quickly North Korea can easily render reversible any steps taken towards scrapping its Weapons of Mass Destruction program with little hesitation,” CSIS said.
It called the action “an affront” to Trump’s diplomatic strategy that showed North Korean pique at his refusal to lift sanctions.
Some analysts see the work as aimed at pressing Washington to agree to a deal, rather than as a definite move to resume tests.
A U.S. government source, who did not want to be identified, said North Korea’s plan in rebuilding the site could have been to offer a demonstration of good faith by conspicuously stopping again if a summit pact was struck, while furnishing a sign of defiance or resolve if the meeting failed.
On Wednesday, Bolton warned of new sanctions if North Korea did not scrap its weapons program.
Despite his sanctions talk, there have been signs across Asia that the U.S. “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign against North Korea has sprung leaks.
In a new breach, three South Korean companies were found to have brought in more than 13,000 tons of North Korean coal, worth 2.1 billion won ($2 million) since 2017, South Korea said.
The Chinese government’s top diplomat, State Councillor Wang Yi, referring on Friday to international tension over North Korea, said a “resolution could not be reached overnight”.
“All parties should have reasonable expectations on this,” Wang told a news briefing.
China is North Korea’s most important economic and diplomatic backer, and has suggested easing U.N. sanctions on North Korea as a way to reward it for its improved behavior.
US open to North Korea talks despite missile program activity
By David Brunnstrom and Hyonhee Shin