Praising his “good relationship” with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, US President Donald Trump on Tuesday (Jul 24) welcomed reports that Pyongyang has started dismantling a facility seen as a testing ground for intercontinental ballistic missiles.
New satellite imagery shows “that North Korea has begun the process of dismantling a key missile site, and we appreciate that,” Trump said at an event for military veterans in Kansas City, Missouri.
Hitting back at criticism that his Jun 12 summit with Kim in Singapore has so far yielded few concrete results, Trump suggested his newfound rapport with Kim was bearing fruit.
“We had a fantastic meeting with Chairman Kim and it seems to be going very well,” Trump said.
After the summit, Trump had declared the North Korean nuclear threat was effectively over, but some US media reports suggest he has been privately furious at the pace of subsequent progress on the denuclearisation issue.
US-based website 38 North published imagery on Monday indicating that Pyongyang has begun taking down a processing building and a rocket-engine test stand that had been used to test liquid-fuel engines at its Sohae Satellite Launching Station.
Sohae, on the northwest coast of North Korea, is ostensibly a facility designed for putting satellites into orbit, but rocket engines are easily repurposed for use in missiles and the international community has labelled Pyongyang’s space programme a fig leaf for weapons tests.
38 North analyst Joseph Bermudez called the move an “important first step” for Kim in fulfilling a promise Trump said the North Korean leader had made.
But some experts urged caution and one US defence official played down the news, saying the Sohae site was not a priority in terms of monitoring the North’s denuclearisation efforts.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the imagery was “entirely consistent” with commitments Kim made to Trump during their summit in Singapore.
“We’ve been pressing for there to be inspectors on the ground when that engine test facility is dismantled consistent with Chairman Kim’s commitment,” Pompeo said at a news conference in California.
“They need to completely denuclearise, that’s the steps that Chairman Kim committed to and that the world has demanded,” Pompeo added.
On Tuesday, Trump told the Veterans of Foreign Wars group that he was hopeful the question of repatriating the remains of US troops killed during the Korean War would be addressed shortly.
The long-simmering topic was highlighted in a joint statement signed by Trump and Kim, with the US and North Korea committing to recovering remains, “including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.”
“At the very end of our meeting, I said to Chairman Kim – good relationship, good feeling – I said, ‘I would really appreciate if you could do that’,” Trump said.
“He said, ‘It will be done.’”
On Jun 20, Trump erroneously said 200 human remains had already “been sent back” from North Korea, but the issue is far from resolved and Pyongyang has already cancelled at least one meeting to discuss the return of the remains.
We are “working to bring back the remains of your brothers-in-arms who gave their lives to Korea,” Trump said on Tuesday.
“I hope that very soon these fallen warriors will begin coming home to lay at rest in American soil.”
In a sign of Washington’s impatience with what it sees as North Korean foot-dragging on the denuclearisation issue, Pompeo was in New York last week urging UN member states to keep tough economic sanctions in place to pressure Kim into moving forward.
China and Russia have argued that North Korea should be rewarded with the prospect of eased sanctions for opening up dialogue with the United States and halting missile tests.
South Korea has also pushed ahead with its reconciliation with the North since a landmark inter-Korean summit in April.
Seoul’s defence ministry said on Tuesday it was considering withdrawing some troops from the border Demilitarised Zone on a trial basis – a move which could expand into a gradual pullout.
The 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, leaving the two Koreas technically at war.
The DMZ was designated as a buffer zone, but the areas to the north and south of it are heavily fortified.
More than 35,000 Americans were killed on the Korean peninsula during the war, with 7,700 of these US troops still listed as missing in action – most of them in North Korea.