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World

New Report Finds North Korea Has Continued To Develop Its Missile Capabilities

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President Trump has been saying that the nuclear threat from North Korea is over. Just last week, he reiterated these assurances at a press conference at the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're very happy how it's going with North Korea. We think it's going fine. We're in no rush. We're in no hurry. The sanctions are on.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You still expect to meet Kim Jong Un?

TRUMP: No, no. Excuse me. Wait.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Sorry, sir.

TRUMP: The sanctions are on. The missiles have stopped. The rockets have stopped. The hostages are home.

CHANG: The missiles have stopped. A new report from a think tank in Washington, D.C., shows North Korea is still developing its missile capabilities. After assembling and analyzing detailed satellite photographs, the Center for Strategic and International Studies says it has discovered more than a dozen ballistic missile bases still operating in North Korea.

Victor Cha is one of the co-authors of this report. He was also involved in past negotiations with the North Korean regime. Victor Cha joins us now. Welcome.

VICTOR CHA: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So what did your study reveal? What do these satellite images show exactly?

CHA: So essentially, using commercially available satellite imagery, we were able to locate 13 operational missile bases. They can launch everything from Scud missiles to ballistic missiles. And the one that - in particular that we profiled on Monday is the one that's closest to Seoul. It's only 80 kilometers from center of Seoul, a population of 22 million people.

CHANG: OK, and just to be clear, ballistic missile bases are important to a nuclear program potentially because these missiles could theoretically transport nuclear warheads.

CHA: That's right.

CHANG: Now, since your report came out, South Korea has pushed back on the report. It insists that your study doesn't reveal anything new. The U.S. also knows about this. So ultimately, is this deception by the North Korean government?

CHA: So, Ailsa, I think the key point for the audience to remember here is that we are trying to negotiate away North Korea's nuclear and missile threat. And you cannot negotiate over something they do not acknowledge having. North Korea is trying to focus attention on a couple of other installations which are in development phases. And instead, they want to try to leave off the table all of these operational missile bases.

So one can call it deceit. You can call it whatever you want, but in the end, if these bases are not accounted for, these are operational missile bases that pose a threat to the United States, to South Korea and Japan.

CHANG: So this declaration from the June summit in Singapore, it basically says that North Korea agrees to work towards complete denuclearization. What has North Korea done so far since June to slow down or limit its nuclear program?

CHA: So the main thing that they have done, which the president referred to in your clip there, is that they've stopped testing. They tested 20 ballistic missiles in Trump's first 12 months in office, and they haven't tested since then. And that's important. If they're not testing, they're not advancing their programs.

And what they have also done is they have allowed journalists to come in and look at them blowing up the tunnel to one of their nuclear test sites and also talked about dismantling one of the rocket launch facilities.

These are important. There's no denying these are important confidence-building measures, and in return, the United States has halted all military exercises.

But now we're at the point where they really need to start to put the declaration on the table so we can start the denuclearization process.

CHANG: So at this point, how would you characterize the threat North Korea poses to the United States? I mean, when you think back to the summer of 2017 when there was all this talk about fire and fury, when - when the U.S. was worried about Guam getting hit, for example, is the U.S. safer now compared to just summer of 2017?

CHA: We are safer in the sense that the political crisis we saw over North Korean missile and nuclear tests and the president's response - we're not in that phase right now. So in that sense, the political crisis is over.

But if you're assessing the extant capabilities in North Korea, they still have - right now, today - they still have a ballistic missile threat that can hit Guam, that can hit Hawaii, that can hit the continent of the United States. That has not changed whatsoever.

So when the president says, this threat is finished, we're done, you know, I saw this - that's not really true. There's been some diplomacy, some tension reduction. But they still retain today the same capabilities they had in 2017 if not more because who knows what they produced over the past year to threaten South Korea and the United States.

CHANG: Victor Cha with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, thank you very much.

CHA: Thank you. Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.