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North Korea begins dismantling key test site, satellite imagery suggests

The apparent dismantlement of the rail-mounted transfer structure on the Sohae launching station in North Korea is shown in this July 22 image. (Airbus Defense and Space and 38 North)

SEOUL — North Korea has begun dismantling the facilities at the satellite launch station in Sohae, according to an analysis of commercial satellite imagery released on the 38 North website.

The Sohae location has been the main site for North Korean satellite launches since 2012. The testing facilities at the site are thought to play a role in the development of liquid-fuel engines that can also be used in North Korea's ballistic missile program.

If the analysis of the satellite imagery is accurate, North Korea may be taking a small but significant step toward the disarmament that was agreed upon by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Trump during a landmark meeting in Singapore on June 12.

After that summit, Trump said Kim had pledged to dismantle a missile site; U.S. officials later confirmed the site that the U.S. president was referring to was Sohae. However, the lack of visible progress toward that pledge was one factor that soon served to undermine the agreements reached between Kim and Trump.

The images published by 38 North, a U.S.-based website focused on North Korea that is affiliated with the Stimson Center in Washington, were taken by the commercial companies Digital Globe and Airbus Defense and Space on July 20 and July 22, respectively.

In one set of images, it appears that a rail-mounted processing building is being dismantled. This building is where space launch vehicles are assembled before they are moved to the launchpad, according to 38 North analyst Joseph S. Bermudez Jr.

Separately, images show activity around a vertical engine test stand at Sohae. Bermudez notes that in the images from July 22, the test stand appears to have been “completely dismantled,” adding “given the state of activity, work is likely to have begun sometime within the past two weeks.”

On Twitter, 38 North's founder, Joel Wit, said the images suggested North Korea may be willing to “give up its space launch program.” Wit, a former State Department negotiator with North Korea and a consistent advocate for dialogue with Pyongyang, said such a move would be just one step in the right direction, “but an important one.”

Notably, the timeline of the satellite images suggests North Korea may have begun dismantling the facilities at Sohae after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Pyongyang in early July in a bid to make progress on the agreement reached in Singapore.

However, the dismantlement of the facilities at Sohae appears to have taken place without outside experts there to verify it. The North Korean government has made a number of such unilateral moves since the start of the year, including the apparent destruction of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in May. Analysts have cautioned that these steps need verification.

After a flurry of activity earlier in the year, there had been signs recently that ongoing denuclearization talks between the United States and North Korea were going slower than anticipated. U.S. intelligence officials said last month that Pyongyang was working to conceal key aspects of its nuclear program.

The Washington Post reported this past weekend that Trump, who had said last month that North Korea's nuclear problem was “largely solved,” was now privately expressing concern about a lack of progress on the issue. On Monday, Trump tweeted that the story was “wrong” and that he was “very happy!”

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