North Korea appears to be expanding its long-range nuclear missile production in its move away from denuclearization talks and towards aggressive behavior with the U.S.
Satellite photos gathered by the Planet Labs firm show one long-range missile production factory has brought in a temporary structure believed to help raise a launcher arm for new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
Satellite images show new work being done at a North Korean military site linked to the production of long-range intercontinental ballistic missile launchers https://t.co/UFIHg6lhId
— CNN (@CNN) December 22, 2019
“We believe North Korea erects this structure when the facility is involved in producing or modifying ICBM launchers,” Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, told NBC.
The facility Lewis described is known as the March 16 Factory. It has produced both civilian and military vehicles like the trucks seen in 2017 and 2018 parades, transporting North Korean nuclear missiles.
“Until now, North Korea’s limited ability to produce heavy-duty vehicle chassis has been a constraint on the development of a survivable intercontinental-range ballistic missile program,” Lewis said. “The expansion of this facility may represent an increase in North Korea’s ability to produce domestic missile launchers and expand its ICBM force.”
The new developments at the factory come ahead of a year-end deadline set by North Korea, to complete a denuclearization agreement. North Korean officials have increasingly warned the U.S. to meet their terms for nuclear disarmament and have warned that the U.S. decision will determine the “Christmas gift” outcome.
Several U.S. military officials have speculated what action North Korea will take if their demands are not met, including the possibility of tests for longer-range ballistic missiles.
U.S. Air Force General Charles Brown, the head of Pacific Air Forces (PACAF), has raised the likelihood of a long-range ballistic missile launch as a likely scenario and has increased flight reconnaissance missions to monitor for signs of a coming launch.
Brown said one of the main questions left for military officials expecting a missile launch is, “does it come on Christmas Eve? Does it come on Christmas Day? Does it come in after the new year?”
Brown said the U.S. would also be ready to resume many of the military maneuvers that have put pressure on North Korea in the past.
President Donald Trump has insisted North Korea will agree to denuclearization, though intelligence community officials have reportedly assessed North Korea’s willingness to take nuclear disarmament as highly unlikely.
“The only option is to accept the reality that North Korea is a nuclear-armed state that holds the U.S. at risk,” Lewis said. “The Trump administration had an opportunity, and I think they’ve blown it.”
Lewis added North Korea’s Kim Jong Un likely never planned to disarm but likely meant to have nuclear weapons “recede from view” in order to win concessions from the U.S.
U.S. special envoy Stephen Biegun, during a visit to South Korea this month, urged North Korea to return to negotiations.