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[Editorial] Face reality

Detected facility suspected of making nuclear warheads points to Pyongyang’s recalcitrance

President Moon Jae-in said early this month that South Korea would try to broker another summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un before the US presidential election in November.

Moon and his new national security team, composed of figures known for their accommodative stance on the North, seem to be promoting what is described as “a small deal” in the hope of enabling Trump and Kim to hold a fourth meeting.

This refers to a partial lifting of sanctions against the Kim regime in return for the North dismantling its Yongbyon nuclear complex and some additional facilities related to its nuclear weapons program.

Pyongyang was quick to dismiss Moon’s latest pitch to play a role as mediator between the US and North Korean leaders.

During their second summit in Hanoi in February 2019, Trump rejected Kim’s call for significant sanctions relief in exchange for scrapping the Yongbyon complex, pressing the North to do more.

The North Korean leader’s increasingly powerful sister, Kim Yo-jong, said in a statement Friday that she wanted no one to “harbor a foolish dream” of brokering a deal linking the partial lifting of sanctions with the dismantling of a large-scale nuclear facility like the Yongbyon complex.

She insisted the theme of negotiations between the US and North Korea should change from “denuclearization measures versus lifting of sanctions” to “withdrawal of hostility versus resumption of negotiations.” Her statement called for Washington to take “irreversible simultaneous major steps” and drop its “hostile policy” toward the communist state. The vaguely worded demand seems to be meant to urge the US not only to ease sanctions but to end joint military drills with South Korea, stop deploying strategic military assets to the peninsula and withdraw the North from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

The statement shows Pyongyang’s intention to shift the focus of talks with Washington from its denuclearization to nuclear disarmament by the two sides. Former US national security adviser John Bolton said in a recent interview with a Japanese daily that the Kim regime could not be expected to discard its nuclear arsenal.

In what might be the latest evidence of Pyongyang’s adherence to its nuclear weapons program, new satellite imagery reveals a previously undeclared North Korean facility that experts suspect might be used to build nuclear warheads.

The images, captured by Planet Labs and analyzed by experts at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, show an active facility in a village near Pyongyang, US news network CNN reported last week.

Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at the institute in Monterey, California, was quoted by CNN as saying, “That activity has not slowed down -- not during negotiations and not now. It’s still making nuclear weapons.”

Another North Korea expert, Ankit Panda, writes in his upcoming book, “Kim Jong Un and the Bomb,” that the facility is believed to be primarily associated with building warheads and could also serve as a storage location for those arms should Kim need to disperse his stockpile “for better responsiveness in a crisis,” according to CNN.

The Moon government now needs to take a hard look at Pyongyang’s true intentions, instead of seeking to arrange for yet another summit between Trump and Kim, which experts note could risk producing a half-baked deal that might put South Korea’s security on a permanently insecure footing. It should no longer be preoccupied with its agenda of reconciliation with the North, which critics say is out of touch with reality.

Pyongyang’s persistent course of action is to get what it wants without denuclearizing by carrying out measured provocative acts while upgrading its nuclear and missile capabilities.

Last week, Trump expressed his willingness to hold another summit with Kim if doing so would be “helpful.” Bolton recently noted that Trump might meet with Kim if he believes a summit would help boost his reelection chances.

Though observers say Washington will likely try to maintain the status quo in dealing with Pyongyang in the run-up to the November election, it should come as no surprise if Trump chose to sit down with Kim again.

Despite its repeated negative rhetoric on resuming dialogue with the US, the North, which is in the grip of mounting difficulties caused by sanctions and the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, might be waiting for an opportunity to get a deal on terms closer to those it has set forth.

It is not time to facilitate a dubious deal between Trump and Kim but to stick to a concrete road map for ensuring the North’s complete denuclearization.