Vehicles have been spotted at the missile research center in recent days, but they are not believed to be fueling missiles. The US officials were uncertain whether North Korea was preparing to launch short or medium-range missiles or engine tests.
The “activities are consistent with what we’ve seen prior to other missile tests,” one US official told CNN. While there was no sign of an imminent launch, Pyongyang could do so as always, other US officials added.
Built in early 2017, the missile research center near Pyongyang is considered one of the key facilities for nuclear weapons development. Test-launched in late 2017, North Korea’s first intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-15 was produced there.
Researchers at the Middlebury Institute, who have monitored the site since 2017, told CNN the recent activity was inconclusive, and Pyongyang — which is fully aware that Washington is watching over the site — could be misleading US intelligence.
“The unusual traffic is difficult to interpret. If it is a leadership visit to the factory, that could come either at the beginning or the end of the construction of an ICBM or space launcher,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the Institute’s East Asia Nonproliferation Project.
“The important thing is that there is an uptick in activity at the site, just as there has been at Sohae and other facilities,” he added.
The recent activity came days after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un announced he would unveil a “new strategic weapon” in the face of what the hermit state denounced as US “hostile policy.”
Pyongyang has blamed Washington for the deadlock in their denuclearization talks, and said the talks would resume if Washington meets all of its demands.
President Donald Trump’s top officials have expressed optimism that the US could reopen the talks with North Korea, and it has reached out to the communist state to restart the negotiations after the latest bilateral meetings fell apart in Stockholm last October.
“We’ve been letting them know, through various channels, that we would like to get those (negotiations) back on track and to implement Chairman Kim’s commitment” to a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, US national security adviser Robert O’Brien said on Jan. 10.
When asked to evaluate how Pyongyang’s new strategic weapon poses a threat, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Jan. 24 that North Korea is “trying to build long-range ballistic missiles with the ability to carry a nuclear warhead.”
“It still remains to be the case that we’re pursuing a diplomatic initiative with them and we think the best way forward is through a political agreement,” he added.