In Depth

Satellite images prompt fears over North Korean ‘Christmas gift’ for US

New photos reveal expansion of nuclear facility near Pyongyang

North Korean has expanded a factory linked to the production of long-range missiles, according to an analysis of satellite images released just weeks after nuclear talks with the US came to a grinding halt.

The Associated Press reported on Monday that images released by private earth imaging firm Planet Labs show what a US expert said appeared to be new construction at the facility near Pyongyang.

Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia nonproliferation programme at California’s Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said the seeming expansion was “big news” and was probably tied to North Korea’s desire to increase production of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), The Hill reports.

“I would think North Korea would want 50-100 such systems... This would probably be some mix of ICBMs we have seen and the new system that North Korea claims is under development,” he added.

North Korea has previously warned that its choice of “Christmas gift” to the US this year will depend on what action Washington takes on the global diplomatic stage.

The US has requested further talks since negotations with Pyongyang broke down in November, but North Korea’s vice minister of foreign affairs, Ri Thae Song, dismissed the offer as “nothing but a foolish trick hatched to keep the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] bound to dialogue and use it in favour of the political situation and election in the US”, Politico reports.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has taken a significantly more belligerent stance on US-North Korea relations in recent months. In early December, his Foreign Ministry warned that its year-end deadline for Washington to change its “hostile policies” was coming up.

“What is left to be done now is the US option and it is entirely up to the US what Christmas gift it will select to get,” said foreign minister Ri.

ABC News reports that the latest threat “even has commercial airliners on edge”, while the US Federal Aviation Administration issued an alert warning of “longer-range missile test launches prior to the end of 2019, or in the early part of 2020”.

The Japan Times reports that “one option for Kim could be firing a nuclear-capable intermediate-range ballistic missile [IRBM] over Japan”.

J. Berkshire Miller, a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo, says that if negotiations “go south”, there is “a strong possibility of more flagrant provocations in the new year – such as another IRBM test over Japan’s air space”.

Indeed, The Guardian notes that Pyongyang has used the threat of a “gift” before, to refer to its first test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in 2017.

“They might not necessarily wait until the end of the year to show their displeasure on how the diplomacy with the United States has gone,” Joshua Pollack, a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute, told the newspaper. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see an ICBM go over Japan on Christmas Day itself.”

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Following the announcement that North Korea would be sending a “gift”, the country’s state-run Korean Central News Agency announced that the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea would meet at the end of December “so as to discuss and decide on crucial issues in line with the needs of the development of the Korean revolution and the changed situation at home and abroad”.

The US has long called for North Korea to give up parts of its nuclear arsenal in exchange for the lifting of punishing international sanctions. Kim has met US President Donald Trump twice, in June 2018 and February this year, in what was hailed as a warming of relations at the time. 

However, North Korea signed only a non-committal promise of denuclearisation at the first meeting and the latter Trump/Kim summit in Vietnam was cut short with no deal.

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