Spy agencies suspect North Korea building new missiles: report
WASHINGTON -- North Korea will top Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's agenda as he heads to an Asian security meeting in Singapore this week amid new concerns over Pyongyang's ballistic missile program and commitment to denuclearization.
Pompeo and North Korea's foreign minister are both set to attend the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum on Saturday and U.S. officials say a meeting between the two of them is possible, although not confirmed.
North Korea is one of 27 members of the forum, which in the past has served as a venue for meetings between top diplomats from Pyongyang and Washington. Singapore was also the site of last month's historic summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at which the two reached a loose agreement on denuclearization.
North Korea "will be in the room and there will certainly be discussions about denuclearization," one senior State Department official said Tuesday. The official was not authorized to publicly discuss Pompeo's schedule and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Since the Trump-Kim summit, though, issues have arisen to give U.S. and other analysts pause.
On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence officials suspect that North Korea is continuing to build new missiles in the same research facility that manufactured the country's ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States.
The Post also reported that North Korean officials have talked about how they plan to deceive the U.S. about the size of their arsenal of missiles and nuclear warheads and facilities. "Their strategy includes potentially asserting that they have fully denuclearized by declaring and disposing of 20 warheads while retaining dozens more," the newspaper said.
Missile experts, using open source satellite information, also reported seeing activity at the research facility in Sanumdong near the capital, Pyongyang. Jeffrey Lewis, who directs the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said his group has reviewed 40 high-resolution images since January. Intelligence agencies likely have more detailed images, he said.
"We've tracked the vehicle traffic in and out and it's still active," Lewis said in a phone interview Tuesday. "That facility is used for producing missiles and space launchers and that facility has remained active all year long. There's new construction and shipping containers going in and out."
The senior State Department official would not address the report, but Pompeo and other members of Trump's national security team have cautioned that the process of denuclearizing North Korea and eliminating the threat from its long-range missiles will not be quick. They have urged patience even as Trump himself has played up positive developments, including the return of apparent remains of more than 50 American troops killed during the Korean War.
The officials cited by the Post said new evidence, including satellite photos taken in recent weeks, suggests that work is underway on at least one and possibly two liquid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missiles at a research facility in Sanumdong on the outskirts of Pyongyang.
The report cast further doubt on Trump's claims of victory last month in disarmament talks with North Korea. After the president met Kim, Trump declared on Twitter "There is no longer a Nuclear threat from North Korea."
White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway on Tuesday played down the significance of the Post report.
"It suggests that this is a process," she told Fox News of U.S. efforts to denuclearize North Korea. "Things don't change overnight," Conway added.
Trump asserted last week that his administration's plan to dismantle North Korea's nuclear weapons is "going very well." Trump made his remarks after the North Korea-focused 38 North website released recent satellite imagery that seems to show dismantlement underway at Sohae.
But his comment seemed at odds with Pompeo, who said any such step would have to be confirmed by international inspectors and that North Korea continued to produce fuel for nuclear weapons despite Kim's pledge to denuclearize. Pompeo said there was "an awful long way to go" before North Korea could no longer be viewed as a nuclear threat.
Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.