28.02.2019 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

North Korea Talks Discussion: Yet Another Attempt to Create Much Ado about Nothing


On more than one occasion we have pointed out that every time the USA and DPRK attempt to establish a dialogue, anti-Trump forces in the United States try to sabotage these efforts. Their approach is simple and straightforward, a widely publicized investigation begins. Its key aim is to establish that DPRK is deceiving the USA, since North Korea continues to secretly develop technologies, it had promised to ban, thus failing to fulfill its obligations, which means that Donald Trump, who allowed this to happen, is an incompetent and unworthy leader.

The penultimate attempt of this nature was made in November 2018, when among rumors that the second summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un was about to take place, the analytical Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) uncovered a presence of 13 hidden North Korean military bases or facilities “whose existence was hitherto unknown”. In truth, as it turned out, everyone was actually fully aware of these sites. Hence, this was an attempt to incriminate Kim Jong-un for failure to fulfill his promises that he never made.

It is also worth remembering that the center in question is a stronghold for Trump’s enemies. And the program for studying North Korea is headed by Victor Cha, a well-known foreign policy hawk, who the Trump administration almost appointed as the Ambassador to South Korea.

In the middle of January 2019, the New York Times referred to an analysis issued by the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in its article claiming that North Korea was collaborating with foreign researchers to learn biotechnology skills and subsequently build biological weapons. According to Andrew C. Weber, in charge of nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs under President Obama, “North Korea is far more likely to use biological weapons than nuclear ones,” and “Experts have long suspected that the North harbors the germ, which in 1980 was declared eradicated from human populations.”

Admittedly, it is possible that “the North might well have no bio-weapons at all — just research, prototypes, human testing, and the ability to rush into industrial production,” but still the authors of the article choose experts, such as Anthony H. Cordesman (a former Pentagon intelligence official, now at the CSIS) who are confident that the North “has made major strides in all technical areas needed for the production of a major germ arsenal.” Successes DPRK achieves in the field of medicine are presented to the public as secret research developments or preparations for such studies. It seems that “South Korean military white papers have identified at least ten facilities in the North that could be involved in research and production of more than a dozen biological agents, including those that cause the plague and hemorrhagic fevers.” And defectors from DPRK have described trials that involved testing of biological weapons on political prisoners.

Key proof of this turns out to be the fact that several defectors from North Korean military ranks tested positive for antibodies against smallpox, which means that they were either exposed to the deadly virus or were vaccinated against it (earlier immunizations against infectious diseases were available to everyone in the Soviet Union and beyond? Or haven’t you heard?). Increased web searches in the North about “antibiotic resistance,” “microbial dark matter,” “the CAS protein” and other similar subjects indicate a growing interest in the latest studies on genes and microorganisms there. In addition, at least 100 articles, co-authored by North Korean and foreign scientists, describe research that is of potential use to the military. And a key piece of evidence is that in 2015, state media outlets showed a clearly pleased Kim Jong-un “touring a biotechnology plant,” which, according to official sources, produces pesticides, but we all know that this blood-thirsty despot is not capable of expressing joy about something good. This means that within a few weeks this place can be transformed into a manufacturing facility for producing a dry form of anthrax spores.

Although employees from U.S. intelligence services did not give credence to such conclusions publicly, discussions have since begun that strongly remind the author of the times when the whole world was worried about biological weapons in Saddam’s Iraq. During that period there was also a search for secret laboratories, and this was used as a pretext to destroy the entire food or medical sector. After all, if a facility can be theoretically used to manufacture biological weapons, a bloody regime will certainly take advantage of such capabilities. Hence, such dreaded place needed to be destroyed as quickly as possible.

On 14 January 2019, Bloomberg reported that, according to specialists, North Korea continued to work on its nuclear and missile programs in secret. Analysis of data, collected by satellites, and of information, leaked by U.S. intelligence services, shows that DPRK is mass-producing missiles and warheads at its routine pace, and that Kim Jong-un has obtained enough material to make approximately 6 nuclear bombs. The chief expert is Melissa Hanham, a research associate specializing in analysis of proliferation of weapons based on publicly available sources.

On 21 January, Reuters reported that the United States yet again uncovered “an undeclared missile site” that it had prior knowledge of. According to a new report by the CSIS, “Undeclared North Korea: The Sino-ri Missile Operating Base and Strategic Force Facilities” one of the missile operating bases discovered by them “fit into North Korea’s presumed nuclear military strategy by providing an operational-level nuclear or conventional first strike capability.” This 18 km2 – base is located 212 km north of the Demilitarized Zone and houses a hidden ballistic missile arsenal that includes medium-range Nodong-1 missiles, capable of reaching South Korea, Japan and even the island of Guam in the western part of the Pacific Ocean.

The CSIS highlighted that, based on satellite images from December 2018, the military base is operational with the headquarters of the Strategic Rocket Forces brigade and an academy for training Missile Operations officers located in its vicinity. It also most likely houses strategic ballistic missiles. However, the issue of missile operating bases has not been fully addressed during negotiations between the USA and North Korea.

As expected, the co-author of the report happened to be Victor Cha. Naturally, the military base in question has never been declared by North Korea, and, as a result, it is not part of the denuclearization negotiations. In other words, if North Koreans choose to dismantle their nuclear facilities, this will only affect the previously declared sites, but in reality there are far more of them.

In reality, this facility has been common knowledge for quite some time in South Korea. A spokesperson for ROK’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, Kim Joon-rak, noted “We’ve been monitoring,” this facility “with interest, in cooperation with the United States.”

The reaction from experts, working for the website 38north and specializing in analyzing satellite imagery, is far more noteworthy. They said the timing of the CSIS report was “regrettable”.

Yes, it is clear that the descriptive compilation of satellite imagery is interesting, but it simply confirms what we have known all along: DPRK has a wide network of missile bases and many of these have been maintained and used for decades. The base, which North Koreans apparently hid from the rest of the world, has existed since at least the 1960s. The fact that Pyongyang has chosen not to inform the global community about this particular missile base does not mean that American and South Korean intelligence services were not aware of this facility or of what possibly happens there.

What is actually important is that the CSIS “report creates a misleading narrative about North Korean motives, intentions and actions at a time when the brittle US-DPRK diplomatic process is struggling to gain altitude.” “The American people are being led to the premature — perhaps even unwarranted — conclusion that diplomacy with North Korea is at best a waste of time.”

Experts from the 38north web portal state the report’s central thesis is that “DPRK is a sinister force,” an opinion “deeply held by most American officials and US experts on North Korea (and perhaps understandably so given the nearly seven decades of overt hostility between the US and the North).” As a result “American media outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and NBC,” (we would have added that these are not Donald Trump supporters) “have a tendency to report every obstacle, walk-back or utterance from a North Korean official as both a national security crisis and incontrovertible proof of North Korean perfidy.”

Meanwhile, despite reports by media outlets and official statements from the United States to the contrary, Kim Jong-un is yet to sign an official agreement with the United States on denuclearization. Accusations that the North Korean leader has breached the terms of this agreement, reached with Donald Trump, are baseless since Kim Jong-un has not signed such treaty or undertaken obligations to provide information about his missile program or to dismantle it. In fact, the word “missile” was not mentioned even once in the Joint Statement signed at the end of the Singapore Summit.

South Korean experts also note that the CSIS report could be viewed from two perspectives. Firstly, the document reflects a stance, held by the American society earlier, that DPRK is not to be trusted. Secondly, it expresses reservations about the fact that the U.S. President Donald Trump could be willing to make undesirable concessions to North Korea.

However, opponents to the dialogue refuse to quiet down, and on 16 February the CSIS issued another report, this time around about the situation at yet another secret and undeclared North Korean missile launch base near the village of Sannam-ri, Hochun county in Hamgyeongnam-do Province. The document states that this base is located 310 km north east of Pyongyang and houses intermediate- and long-range ballistic missiles, Hwasong-10, also referred to as Musudan. The report points out that on deployment, Hwasong-10 missiles, whose range exceeds 3,000 km, can reach countries in East Asia, Guam and the U.S. military base in Okinawa. The fact that this base is not part of DPRK-USA negotiations on denuclearization is highlighted. Hence, the two sides have thus far only agreed on closing the missile testing facility Tongchang-ri, while other missile operating bases continue to threaten the security of South Korea and the U.S. army.

Statements made by anonymous experts about North Korean use of civilian sites to assemble and test ballistic missiles, or reports by Japanese media outlets about the fact that DPRK repeatedly violated sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, despite preparations for the second USA – North Korea Summit, are also all along these same lines. Hence, on 17 February 2019, the news agency Kyodo News reported that Pyongyang used manufacturing facilities, airports and other non-military sites to develop and test nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. In addition, the agency referred to a report, issued by a group of experts from the UN Security Council Sanctions Committee on North Korea, which apparently contains proof that the North is assembling new ballistic missiles Hwasong-15, capable of reaching the United States, at a lorry-manufacturing plant. According to the document, the whole process of assembling, storing and testing of these weapons was spread across civilian sites, which have been equipped accordingly. It was also reported that the Yongbyon nuclear facility, which was meant to be closed, is still operational. Apparently, the report was presented to the sanctions committee as far back as 1 February, and it will be published soon. Hence, it is not yet accessible for independent analysis, and it is still unclear to what extent the information stemming from this source, known for its penchant for red herrings, is accurate.

Clearly, it is impossible to ignore that the USA – North Korea negotiations have a significant effect on U.S. internal politics. And many of the CSIS documents are not only about the fact that Kim Jong-un is deceiving everyone and Donald Trump is a fool to believe him, but instead they are, first and foremost, aimed at Trump’s target audience in the United States so as to alienate his voters. However, such reports are read in other countries, where these nuances are not always understood. Hence, we are hoping that, as the experts from 38north phrased it best, “The next Trump-Kim summit should not be derailed on the basis of innuendo, old news and tendentious arguments.”

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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