The South Korean government is closely watching activities at major North Korean sites after the regime announced that it carried out a “very important” test at its Sohae satellite launch site.
Experts believe it is likely that the test was for a new solid fuel engine for an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the continental US. Pyongyang has refrained from conducting ICBM tests for the past 18 months.
As of Monday, the defense and unification ministries could not identify what was tested at the Sohae satellite launching station in Tongchang-ri on the North’s west coast.
“While recognizing the grave situation, we will closely monitor developments surrounding North Korea in close cooperation with relevant agencies,” Lee Sang-min, the Unification Ministry’s spokesperson, said during a regular press briefing.
Through a series of short-range missile tests and statements by senior North Korean leaders, Pyongyang has been sending warning messages to Washington to put forward plans for “security guarantees” and the alleviation of sanctions before the end of the year, a deadline set by its leader Kim Jong-un.
The Tongchang-ri site is nominally a satellite testing site, but the North has often used the location to test its ICBM technology and boast about it to the world.
It also holds significance in the North’s denuclearization process as it agreed to permanently dismantle the Tongchang-ri engine testing site and launch pad and allow international inspectors to observe the process when its ruler and South Korean president Moon Jae-in met in September 2018.
As denuclearization talks with the US struggle to make a breakthrough, the North appears to have rebuilt demolished parts of the site this year.
Alarmed by the move, Washington warned of consequences for any hostile acts.
“Kim Jong Un is too smart and has far too much to lose, everything actually, if he acts in a hostile way,” Trump tweeted on Sunday.
US national security adviser Robert O’Brien said the North is making a “big mistake” if it is preparing to resume tests of nuclear bombs.
“If North Korea takes a different path than the one it’s promised its people, the people of South Korea, the United States and the world -- Kim Jong-un said that he is going to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula -- if he does not do that, then we’ll take that into account. And we’ve got plenty of tools in the toolkit,” O’Brien said in an interview with CBS.
Experts here have mixed views on whether Pyongyang is determined to abandon nuclear diplomacy or is making a last-ditch effort to get concessions from Washington.
Former Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun predicts that the regime will launch several solid-fueled ICBMs on Christmas Day.
Earlier this month, North Korea said it would send a “Christmas gift” to the US, but explained that what kind of present it sent would depend on the outcome of ongoing talks between Washington and Pyongyang.
“(The North) told the US to change the calculation method by end-December, but it appears to have already concluded that the US is unlikely to change its stance,” Jeong said.
Jung Dae-jin, a research professor with the Ajou Institute of Unification, said there is still room for diplomacy as Stephen Biegun, the US special representative for North Korea, is expected to visit here soon.
“Biegun is visiting South Korea to look into the situation on the Korean Peninsula and possibly establish contact with the North. It shows the US’ willingness to manage the current situation and North Korea will also move accordingly,” he said.
Biegun is expected to visit Seoul in mid-December. The exact date has not yet been announced.
By Park Han-na (email@example.com