Less than two weeks after the abrupt end of the Hanoi summit between President Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, reports of renewed activity at a North Korean launch site shed new light on the extent of the failure at the second round of face-to-face talks. The reports, based on commercial satellite imagery, suggest that the North Korean government may have been rebuilding the site at the same time as it was conducting denuclearization talks with Trump.
After months of anticipation, that included several public displays of affection between the two leaders, Trump left early from Hanoi empty-handed, citing the intransigence of Kim in his insistence that all sanctions be lifted in exchange for limited denuclearization. What was supposed to be a culminating display of the president’s supposed ability to ease tensions with foreign despots ended instead in a canceled lunch and an early flight back to Washington. While no one anticipated a tectonic shift to result from the meeting, there was hope for a joint declaration between the two administrations outlining progress in negotiations. That declaration, too, was scrapped when it became clear that no agreement was to be had.
Trump, unable to demonstrate real progress upon arriving home, spent the following week defending the apparent dud of a meeting. “This wasn’t a walk away like you get up and walk out,” he said afterwards. “The relationship was very warm and when we walked away it was a very friendly walk.” The president worked himself into an even deeper hole on the subject of Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student who was imprisoned in North Korea and returned to the United States only to die shortly thereafter. Trump, after publicly denouncing the regime for his death and praising the late Warmbier for helping to bring the two leaders together for a second summit, said that he took Kim “at his word” that he knew nothing of Warmbier’s treatment in prison. Needless to say, the remarks contributed to an especially poor news cycle for the president.
“We have been respectful during this summit process. Now we must speak out,” said Warmbier’s family in a statement rebuking the president. “Kim and his evil regime are responsible for the death of our son Otto. Kim and his evil regime are responsible for unimaginable cruelty and inhumanity. No amount of excuses or lavish praise can change that. Thank you.”
In search of tangible progress to point to from the summit, Trump said that he’d received Kim’s promise that there would be no nuclear tests conducted in the immediate future. Such tests are understood to be symbolic provocations by the isolated North Korean government against South Korea, the United States, China, and other foreign governments claiming to wield influence over the Kim regime, and have served to excite tensions and press coverage over the years.
“One of the things, importantly, that Chairman Kim promised me last night is, regardless, he’s not going to do testing of rockets and nuclear – not going to do testing,” said Trump after the summit. “And I take him at his word. I hope that’s true.”
Wednesday’s report of renewed construction at one of the nuclear launch sites, however, undermines the already dubious reasoning for a second summit. According to 38 North, a U.S. think tank that covers North Korea, the Sohae Satellite Launching Station had been partly dismantled during the thaw in relations between the U.S. and North Korea, but has remained in mostly the same condition since August of 2018. The Sohae site in particular had been pointed to by White House officials as evidence of the administration’s success in negotiating with the North Korean regime.
The new satellite images, however, suggest that construction to rebuild the site had begun some time between February 16 and March 2, the period of time leading up to and including the Hanoi denuclearization talks. The assessment was corroborated by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which said that North Korea was “pursuing a rapid rebuilding.”
D.C. think tanks aren’t the only ones discussing activity at the launch site. Suh Hoon, the director of the South Korean National Intelligence Agency, likewise reported to lawmakers in the country that the North Koreans were building at the Sohae station.
“Well we’re going to see. It’s too early to see, it’s a very early report. We’re the ones that put it out,” said Trump, appearing either to claim that his administration was involved in the release of this information or simply to reference that the news came from U.S. sources in addition to South Korean intelligence. He did not clarify what he meant by that statement. “But I would be very, very disappointed in Chairman Kim, and I don’t think I will be. But we’ll take a look.” The president said that the news presented a “nasty problem” but that his relationship with the regime was “good.”
As with most things operating under the North Korean regime, a shroud hangs over the details of the activity reported on Wednesday. What’s been made public is only what’s in the pictures: building constructions, cranes, and similar signs of life at the formerly dark station. Whether the rebuilding is in preparation for new testing, as some analysts have suggested, or is simply supposed to reverse the deconstruction that took place in 2018, it’s a clear rebuke of Trump and his fumbled attempt to broker a deal with the ruthless Kim regime. It seems likely that Kim will remain a rather fickle counterpart to the president, especially for someone with whom Trump once claimed to have “fallen in love.”