Once upon a time, a couple months ago, National-Security Adviser John Bolton predicted how Donald Trump’s summit with Kim Jong Un would go down. The U.S. president would swiftly assess how serious the North Korean leader was about giving up his nuclear weapons. And assuming Kim was serious, U.S. authorities would “very quickly” swoop in, take apart North Korea’s nukes, and ship them off to Tennessee. This week, in a measure of how times have changed, progress from the June 12 summit finally came—and it came in the form of satellites spotting the partial dismantlement of some facilities at a satellite-launch site. “It is a better sign than nothing,” one South Korean official remarked. The Tennessee plan this is not.
That said, the demolition work at the Sohae station—involving a stand for testing engines used in missiles and a building near a launchpad for rocket-powered vehicles that send satellites into space—is still significant. It’s true that, as Melissa Hanham, an expert on nuclear nonproliferation in East Asia, has pointed out, North Korea may not need the test stand anymore “if it is confident in [its] engine design” and moving from testing missiles to mass-producing them. Destroying the stand, which can easily be rebuilt if new designs need to be tested, “is a good move, but about the bare minimum that can be done at the site,” she writes. Since the latest frontier in North Korea’s weapons program is missiles with solid-fuel engines that can be fired from mobile launchers with little warning, the stationary rocket launchpad and liquid-fuel engines tested at Sohae are also outdated. “Dismantling Sohae is kinda like taking apart the old Chevy while putting fresh tires on the Porsche,” CNN’s Will Ripley observed on Twitter. The very way the dismantling was detected—through commercial satellite imagery rather than international inspectors on the ground—is also illustrative of North Korea’s continued resistance to independent verification of the steps it claims to be taking toward denuclearization. (The Kim government similarly allowed only foreign journalists, not outside experts, to witness the purported destruction of a nuclear-test site in May. It has not yet publicly confirmed that it is taking Sohae out of commission.)