Mike Pompeo, U.S. secretary of state, listens during a meeting with Republican members of Congress in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Fresh North Korean Weapon Gains Raise Pressure on Pompeo Trip

(Bloomberg) -- Evidence of new efforts by Kim Jong Un to expand his nuclear arsenal shows the challenge facing U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when he returns to Pyongyang this week to seek a detailed disarmament plan.

Several reports released in recent days suggest that Kim continued to ramp up his weapons production before his June 12 summit with President Donald Trump, after which the U.S. leader declared North Korea was “no longer a nuclear threat.” The reports published by independent researchers and media organizations detail efforts to increase fuel production, build more missile launchers and expand a key rocket-engine manufacturing facility.

The moves illustrate how far Kim remains from surrendering his nuclear weapons despite committing to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” during his meeting with Trump. While the reports -- some relying on satellite imagery predating the summit -- haven’t been officially verified, they suggest Pompeo has a difficult task when he leaves Thursday for his trip to Pyongyang.

“This meeting is absolutely critical,” said Sue Mi Terry, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “One can argue that the North Koreans are doing all of this to get maximum concessions out of the United States, if and when they decide to give up their nuclear program. But at some point they have to sit down and actually produce something. Maybe this trip -- but I’m not holding my breath.”

Missile Defense

In the days since the summit, North Korea has expanded ties with rivals and allies alike, visiting China and holding talks on economic cooperation with South Korea. Trump has touted the agreement in campaign-style rallies despite criticism by arms-control experts that the lack of a clear implementation framework makes it unlikely Kim will fully surrender his nuclear program.

In a Twitter post Tuesday morning, Trump touted "many good good conversations with North Korea" and asserted that "all of Asia is thrilled."

"If not for me, we would now be at War with North Korea!" he added.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and South Korea have suspended regular military exercises that North Korea sees as a threat. And the Seoul-based Munhwa Ilbo newspaper reported Monday that South Korea was considering canceling or scaling back missile-defense plans.

September Meeting?

Axios reported Monday that Trump was considering meeting Kim in September in New York, although White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the administration had no announcements to make. She also declined to discuss reports of North Korea’s weapons advances, instead citing the country’s eight-month hiatus from weapons tests as evidence of success.

“What I can tell you is that we’re continuing to make progress,” Sanders said.

Although Kim has pledged to halt nuclear-weapons tests and demolished a facility used for all six of the country’s atomic bomb detonations, he has said nothing about production and made no commitment to unilaterally disarm. U.S. defense analysts have said North Korea retains as many as 60 nuclear bombs and a range of missiles, including some that are capable of striking the U.S.

Recent revelations include an NBC News report that said U.S. intelligence agencies believe North Korea has increased its production of enriched uranium fuel for nuclear weapons at multiple secret sites in recent months. The report, citing unidentified American officials, said the U.S. side suspected Kim may try to conceal those facilities as negotiations progress.

‘Sleep Well’

That undercuts Trump’s own rosy take after the summit. “President Obama said that North Korea was our biggest and most dangerous problem. No longer -- sleep well tonight!” he said in a June 13 tweet.

Moreover, the Middlebury Institute of International Studies released an analysis Sunday that found North Korea has recently expanded a factory complex in the eastern city of Hamhung that produces key engines for solid-fuel ballistic missiles. The construction came after Kim made a similar “denuclearization” pledge during his April 27 meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

The factory in question produces wound-filament airframes and nozzles for engines used in solid-fuel missiles, particularly the Pukguksong series of rockets, the report said. Such missiles are more concerning to U.S. military planners because they can be kept hidden while fueled, making them easier to deploy and harder to target during any attack.

“The expansion suggests that, despite hopes for denuclearization, Kim Jong Un is committed to increasing North Korea’s stockpile of nuclear-armed missiles,” the report’s authors David Schmerler and Jeffrey Lewis wrote.

Fuel, Launchers

In addition, the North Korea-focused 38 North website said Thursday that satellite imagery taken after the Singapore summit suggests the Kim regime was carrying out improvements at a nuclear facility used to produce plutonium fuel. A U.S. National Air and Space Intelligence Center assessment found the country has stepped up the production of advanced missile launchers, the Diplomat website reported Saturday.

Pompeo told a U.S. Senate committee last month that the administration was seeking transparency from the North Koreans about what nuclear material they have, the engineering of it and the missiles that would deliver those nuclear weapons, as well as other weapons of mass destruction. He had previously said that the U.S. would seek “major disarmament” from Kim by the end of Trump’s first term, or about two and a half years from now.

Only Words

U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, meanwhile, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday that Pompeo would visit North Korea to discuss “how to dismantle all of their WMD and ballistic missile programs in a year.”

Shin Beomchul, director at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies’ Center for Security and Unification, said the reports of North Korean weapons advances were “just a good reminder of how complicated and difficult it is to denuclearize the North.”

“North Korea’s intent to denuclearize has been verified only by words,” Shin said. “Now with Pompeo expected to make another visit to Pyongyang, it’s time to prove them with actions.”

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