WASHINGTON – North Korea is moving ahead with its ballistic missile program at 16 hidden bases that have been identified in new commercial satellite images, a network long known to U.S. intelligence agencies but left undiscussed as President Donald Trump claims to have neutralized the North's nuclear threat.
The satellite images suggest that the North has offered to dismantle a major launching site — a step it began, then halted — while continuing to make improvements at more than a dozen others that would bolster launches of conventional and nuclear warheads.
The existence of the ballistic missile bases, which North Korea has never acknowledged, contradicts Trump's assertion that his diplomacy is leading to the elimination of a nuclear and missile program that the North had warned could devastate the United States.
"We are in no rush," Trump said of talks with North Korea on Wednesday. "The sanctions are on. The missiles have stopped. The rockets have stopped. The hostages are home."
Kim Sung-han, the dean of Korea University's Graduate School of International Studies and a former South Korean vice foreign minister, said the CSIS report showed the need for a "verifiable declaration" of North Korea's nuclear and missile capabilities as the next step in negotiations.
Trump on Wednesday appeared to be referring to the halt of missile flight tests, which have not occurred in nearly a year. But U.S. intelligence officials say that the North's production of nuclear material, of new nuclear weapons and of missiles that can be placed on mobile launchers and hidden in mountains at the secret bases has continued.
And sanctions are collapsing, in part because North Korea has leveraged its new relationship with Washington, and its stated commitment to eventual denuclearization, to resume trade with Russia and China.
Moreover, a U.S. program effort to develop an early alert system by tracking those mobile missiles with a new generation of small, inexpensive satellites is stalled.
The secret ballistic missile bases were identified in a study published Monday by the Beyond Parallel program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a major think tank in Washington. The program is led by Victor Cha, a North Korea expert whom the Trump administration considered appointing as the ambassador to South Korea last year.
A State Department spokesman responded by suggesting that the government believed the sites must be dismantled: "President Trump has made clear that should Chairman Kim [Jong-un] follow through on his commitments, including complete denuclearization and the elimination of ballistic missile programs, a much brighter future lies ahead for North Korea and its people."
A map of North Korea in the report shows three belts of missile bases that run from short-range tactical emplacements, to sites with midrange missiles that could strike most of South Korea, Japan and U.S. bases in the Pacific, to strategic ones for missiles that threaten to reach U.S. shores.
The strategic bases appear to be home to the intercontinental ballistic missiles that North Korea test-fired in 2017. The North's tests, while demonstrating progress, did not prove that it had solved all the technical problems in launching a nuclear warhead that could reach the continental U.S. That is why Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have argued that the halt to missile testing is a major accomplishment: It prevents Kim from demonstrating that he can take those last steps.
The revelation comes as Trump's signature piece of diplomacy appears in peril. Publicly, Trump remains relentlessly optimistic. But last week, talks with the North hit another snag, as it declared that it would not send its chief negotiator to meet with Pompeo to plan the next summit meeting.