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North Korea Continues To Produce New Ballistic Missiles


The Washington Post reports that U.S. spy agencies suspect North Korea is continuing to make new ballistic missiles despite the commitment made between Kim Jong Un and President Trump in Singapore. Recent satellite photos show what appears to be an active missile factory not far from the country's capital. It's the same place where the first North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles were made. Joining us to talk about this is Melissa Hanham. She's a nonproliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Welcome to the program.

MELISSA HANHAM: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: All right, so you've seen the same satellite images mentioned by the Post. Do you agree with this conclusion?

HANHAM: It's tough to say 100 percent agree. What's really interesting about this story is that you have an intelligence community that has, you know, exquisite capabilities. They have military satellites. They have signals intelligence and human intelligence and all kinds of things that I don't have at a university. So my colleague had already found this site more than a year ago, and he did it by using ground photos from the inside of the building. So just imagine Kim Jong Un inspecting a missile inside a building and then my colleague David Schmerler identifying each skylight window, each support for the roof, counting them all out and then finding that building using satellite imagery on the outside.

CORNISH: Do you get the sense that this is new activity or just activity that the U.S. maybe thought had ceased but has not?

HANHAM: Yeah, I think that's a really important question. North Korea has from a policy standpoint been making very friendly gestures towards calming the situation down. They officially have not promised to dismantle their nuclear and missile programs. Instead they're sort of using this broad concept of denuclearization. And the reason we get suspicious about what they're doing is because we still see regular activity at their missile and nuclear facilities. So by using satellite imagery, you can monitor specific facilities. And we can see that the traffic activity here has really remained unchanged.

CORNISH: How does any of this comport with what the president has said about what North Korea is supposed to be doing post-summit?

HANHAM: It's another tough question to ask. Unfortunately Kim Jong Un has never said he's going to give up his nuclear and missile capabilities.

CORNISH: So even though they agreed to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, I think was the phrase...

HANHAM: Right.

CORNISH: ...You're saying that doesn't necessarily mean they had planned to give up something like ballistic missiles.

HANHAM: Yeah. First of all, it doesn't cover ballistic missiles. And second of all, it has not set a timeline, and it is not intending to give up its nuclear weapons anytime soon.

CORNISH: So when Senator Ed Markey asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week whether North Korea was taking the U.S. for a ride, Pompeo said fear not. Were you reassured?

HANHAM: Well, I think that we need to go in with eyes wide open. I think it's definitely worth talking to North Korea. But if we actually want to change behavior, then we need to actually start making some concrete benchmarks that we can work towards. So some low-hanging fruit has already been achieved. They've dismantled the North Korean nuclear test site and liquid-fuel engine test stand. Those are two of the lowest-hanging fruit you can go after. It really means that they don't feel like they need to make new types of warheads or new types of missile engines, but it doesn't mean that they aren't going to keep producing the ones they already know how to make.

CORNISH: Melissa Hanham is a nonproliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Thank you for speaking with us.

HANHAM: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: And she joined us from member station KAZU.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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