Satellite images showing North Korea making substantial improvements to one of its nuclear research facilities are raising alarms that the government has little interest in actually giving up its nuclear arsenal.
Just two weeks after President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signed a deal committing the U.S. to security guarantees in exchange for North Korea denuclearizing, satellite images show the country making “rapid” improvements to its Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, according to 38 North, which monitors the country.
NBC News also reported on Friday that U.S. intelligence agencies believe North Korea has increased its fuel production for nuclear missiles at several secret research sites, adding officials fear Kim may try to keep the sites hidden amid negotiations with the U.S.
The changes underscore the difficulty for Trump and the United States in counting on North Korea to stick with any commitments, a fact previous presidents in both parties have realized after failed talks with the country.
“There is no way North Korea will ever give up its nuclear weapons — ever,” said Harry Kazianis, director of The Center for the National Interest think tank, in response to the latest news.
He argued that the latest satellite imagery is evidence that North Korea has no intention of giving up its nuclear program, which it has long seen as key to its survival.
“Since the summit we have learned that North Korea is looking for one thing only from the Trump administration: nuclear acceptance, not disarmament,” Kazianis said.
North Korea benefited significantly from the June 12 summit between Trump and Kim, which was a propaganda victory for Pyongyang.
In addition to the sight of Trump walking side-by-side with Kim, the president also agreed to temporarily halt major military exercises on the Korean Peninsula while talks continue.
Trump won a significant public relations coup himself from the meeting, which appeared to lift his poll numbers. He’s now doubling down with a planned summit next month with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But he has also taken some criticisms for claims that North Korea was no longer a threat.
On Twitter after the summit, Trump wrote that “everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea. Meeting with Kim Jong Un was an interesting and very positive experience. North Korea has great potential for the future!"
Administration officials have since walked those comments back.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told lawmakers on Wednesday that the U.S. still faces a nuclear threat from North Korea.
He said that Trump intended to say that the threat had been reduced,.
“I don't think there's any doubt about that,” Pompeo told a congressional panel this week.
The satellite imagery suggesting North Korea is still keeping up its program magnifies the risk of counting on an unreliable country for Trump.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) said Friday that “it’s hard to tell,” if North Korea is serious about giving up its nuclear armament, but believes that, regardless of Pyongyang’s actions, “there’s no option but denuclearization.”
“Too many red lines have been painted to accept anything less or anything looking like the Iran deal,” Kinzinger added. “So I think they will have to get rid of them or war is the next reality.”
But critics of the agreement signed by Trump and Kim say the document was vague, and did not provide enough details on the steps Pyongyang would take to denuclearize.
Those complaints appeared to be backed up by new images obtained by 38 North that revealed several adjustments to the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center.
The improvements include a new cooling water pump house, multiple new buildings, completed construction on a cooling water reservoir and an apparently active radiochemical laboratory. It is unclear whether the reactor is still in operation.
Kazianis said it appears that Kim is using the same strategy as his father and grandfather before him: “negotiate over his nuclear program for months if not years, and further cement Pyongyang as a nuclear power.”
“Pyongyang would love to have a productive and positive relationship with Washington, but from a position of strength, he said. “They will talk about denuclerization in very broad terms, but they see it far into the future — like when the whole world maybe gives up its nuclear arms.”
Other experts take a slightly more positive outlook, including Jonathan Schanzer, with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Schanzer told The Hill that while the recent satellite images are “undeniably a sign that North Korea is not going to be a compliant partner in this denuclearization effort” the administration is simply at the beginning of a process.
“I would not expect this to go easily, and I think there are going to be steps forward and steps back,” he said.
“I expect there to be some cajoling and threats on the U.S. side before we find out whether North Korea is ultimately serious about completing the process.”
Schanzer said he believes Trump will now likely press for additional U.S. financial pressure and even some additional military assets being deployed to the region.
“In other words, it’s now up to the United states to demonstrate its seriousness,” he said.
Those steps will likely be a part of “maximum pressure campaign 2.0,” financial pressure coupled with additional threats and diplomacy, following previous, crippling sanctions used on North Korea to bring them to the table in June.
The diplomacy part seems to be front and center, with Pompeo to fly to North Korea this coming week for follow-up talks with an unnamed senior official.
During the Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing Wednesday, Pompeo declined to give further details on the U.S.’s demands for North Korea.
“I'm not prepared to talk about the details of the discussions that are taking place," Pompeo said. “I think it would be inappropriate and, frankly, counterproductive to achieving the end state that we're hoping to achieve.”
Schanzer agreed that North Korea appears to be “playing this out — the playbook of Kim’s predecessors, where they engage with the United States and then reverse course.”
The question is whether maximum pressure 2.0, “helps us get to the finish line. If it doesn’t, then we’re right back to where we started,” he added.
The important thing to remember, he added, is that the United States has not given up anything that’s irreversible.
“We’re not promising to end the sanctions regime, and even though we’ve vowed to hold off on some military exercises, they certainly can be reimplemented.”
But Kazianis said Kim’s goal is to weaken the maximum pressure campaign to an extent where they are able to build solid relations and “show they can be responsible and respectable nation – but with nuclear weapons.”
“In the months to come, the Trump administration is going to face some very hard choices — choices that are going to get harder with every day wasted in negotiations that will never work.”