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Kim Jong Un has more to lose if he tests missile

Observers believe he could be bluffing as it could derail the goodwill of the past year

An aerial view of the Sanumdong site, showing recent activities observed from satellites that suggest North Korea may be preparing for a new round of testing.


NORTH KOREAN leader Kim Jong Un is showing signs he might fire his first rocket in 15 months. Long-time observers suspect he is bluffing.

Two days after Kim's summit with US President Donald Trump broke down over sanctions relief and disarmament steps last month, satellite images showed that North Korea was rebuilding a long-range rocket site it recently dismantled. The activity suggests that the country could be preparing to launch a missile or satellite that would push back against Mr Trump while providing valuable data to improve his weapons capability.

"It is a big gamble," said Jenny Town, managing editor for the North Korea-focused 38 North website. "If North Korea does launch a satellite, it could derail all of North Korea's diplomatic goodwill built up over the past year."

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Besides potentially angering Mr Trump, North Korea must avoid undercutting support for sanctions relief from China and Russia. Both nations, which wield vetoes on the United Nations Security Council, approved the penalties after the country tested nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles in defiance of international prohibitions.

Any launch would be the first since Mr Kim fired off an intercontinental ballistic missile in November 2017 capable of reaching any US city and declared his weapons programme complete. Just prepping a potential launch site sends a pointed message to Mr Trump, who has repeatedly cited Mr Kim's decision to refrain from weapons tests to justify his controversial decision to engage the North Korean leader one-on-one.

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho told a rare news conference after the Hanoi talks that Mr Kim had pledged to not to restart testing. "During this summit, we expressed intent to give commitment in a paper form that we permanently stop nuclear tests and test-launch of long-range rockets, to ease the US concerns," Mr Ri said on March 1.

But images released last week by Beyond Parallel - part of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies - showed that North Korea was rebuilding a long-range rocket site at the Sohae Launch Facility. The site was dismantled in an apparent show of goodwill after Mr Trump's first summit with Mr Kim in June, and the US president said he would be "very disappointed" if it was being rebuilt.

A separate report showed increased activity just before the February summit at a rocket-production facility called Sanumdong in the Pyongyang area, where long-range missiles and space launch vehicles are constructed.

Ms Town, who's also a research fellow at the Washington-based Stimson Center, said it was too early to say what North Korea was doing based only on satellite imagery. The regime might be preparing an actual launch or going through the motions to increase its leverage, knowing that what it does is watched by US spy satellites, she said. BLOOMBERG