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So much for the end of North Korea’s long range ICBM work

Not too long ago, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un promised the United States a special “Christmas present” if we didn’t start dropping sanctions on his country. Given the sarcastic nature of the comment (complete with scare quotes), nobody was expecting a fruit basket to show up in the White House rose garden. The clear implication was that Kim was probably going to begin gearing up his nuclear weapons program unless he got what he wanted.

The latest bit of satellite intelligence released for public consumption may provide a hint as to what the “gift” might be. It turns out that the North Koreans have been updating and expanding one of their factories where it’s believed they work on the production of nuclear-capable ICBMs. You may now all join in to sing a chorus of Joy to the World. (NBC News)

North Korea has expanded a factory linked to the production of long-range nuclear missiles, according to a new analysis of satellite photos provided to NBC News that bolsters a growing expectation the country soon will resume testing a capability that threatens the United States.

Commercial satellite images from Planet Labs show a temporary structure at the site to accommodate the raising of a launcher arm, according to Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

“We believe North Korea erects this structure when the facility is involved in producing or modifying ICBM launchers,” Lewis concluded in a written analysis, using the acronym for intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Unlike the China trade negotiations that seem to be up one day and down the next, there hasn’t been any measurable progress with North Korea in months. If there had been even incremental steps toward denuclearization on the Korean peninsula, we could have kept stringing them along (or vice versa) for quite a while longer, eventually even seeing some legitimate progress. But the two sides each have non-starter limitations in place so the relationship appears to be starting to sour.

If Kim is planning on conducting a test launch of an improved ICBM while having done nothing to reduce his nuclear stockpile, then we essentially wind up right back where we were before President Trump began his outreach efforts with Kim. It’s almost inconceivable that Trump could respond to such a launch with his usual comments about Kim being a “smart guy” who knows better than to push us too far. Expect something more along the lines of the return of “Little Rocket Man” tweets.

Of course, where do we go from there once we’re back at square one? It’s nice that North and South Korea seem to be moving closer to rapprochement, but our position regarding North Korea hasn’t improved a bit. And, in fact, it may have gotten worse precisely because of the warming relations between the two Koreas.

If Kim is back to building more nukes and developing increasingly capable long-range missiles, our options are still mostly exhausted. There aren’t many other sanctions we could slap on them. And the idea of a military first strike on North Korean military assets only invites Kim to go ahead and fire off an actual launch. Meanwhile, South Korea has been one of our staunchest allies, but they’ll be caught in the middle of this if we’re back to being fully at odds with the North.

Consider also that our ability to apply additional pressure through sanctions may be greatly weakened as well. As we recently discussed, Russia and China are moving to drop (or at least greatly loosen) international sanctions on North Korea. And they may be preparing to lift their own even if the UN doesn’t agree, throwing Kim a lifeline and making him part of their nuclear-capable power block.

I still applaud Donald Trump for making the effort to find a solution to the North Korean puzzle. It was a worthwhile effort and would have greatly improved the state of things in the world if it succeeded. But the outlook at the moment is far from good and we may have even lost ground in the process. Keep your eyes open for Kim’s Christmas surprise. If there’s a launch, it will probably be on Christmas eve just to throw everyone off balance.