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Doubts Mount Over North Korea's Vow To Dismantle Nuclear Program


It's been less than a month since President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un held their historic summit in Singapore, and doubts are emerging, even multiplying about North Korea's intentions when it comes to dismantling its nuclear program. Let me bring in NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Hey, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So there's new evidence we are learning about regarding North Korea's nukes and their nuclear ambitions. What do we know?

MYRE: That's right. So groups that monitor North Korea are looking at satellite imagery, and they're seeing continued building at either known or suspected nuclear and missile sites. One of these groups is called 38 North, and they say photos from June 21, less than two weeks ago, show North Korea building at a rapid pace, as they describe it.

KELLY: June 21 - I'll stop you there 'cause the date of the Singapore summit at which we were all supposed to be focused on dismantling North Korea's nuclear program was June 12.

MYRE: Yep.

KELLY: So this is nine days after the summit...

MYRE: Precisely.

KELLY: ...These photos come out. OK, go on.

MYRE: Precisely. And part of these photos show work that seems directly related to nuclear production, and so that's very worrying. But there's also two buildings there that appear to be for visitors. So I asked Joel Wit, who's the head of 38 North, what kind of guests might you expect there.

JOEL WIT: It could mean anything from international inspectors to VIP visitors from Pyongyang. So it's an interesting hint at what might be coming, but we can't be sure.

MYRE: So the only way we may know for sure would be to have international nuclear inspectors there to be checking out the plant.

KELLY: So it sounds like though Joel Wit - longtime Korea watcher, lot of experience watching this - he says this doesn't necessarily undermine what was agreed at the summit.

MYRE: Yeah, that's right. So his message is very clear. Don't hyperventilate at this point. And he's aware of these reports of U.S. intelligence officials saying that there's some evidence North Korea might be looking to conceal parts of its nuclear program. He says that may well be true. But he recalls from his days both negotiating with North Korea and even in the U.S.-Soviet era where the countries would negotiate and continue building nukes right up until the point where they reached an agreement that required them to stop. So he wouldn't expect them to stop just yet.

KELLY: What meanwhile is the Trump administration saying about this new evidence?

MYRE: Well, they're not responding directly to these latest reports, and they're sending somewhat mixed signals. The national security adviser John Bolton said yesterday that the U.S. has a plan - and it's a U.S. plan, I have to stress - to dismantle both nuclear weapons and missiles within a year.

KELLY: A year - that would be optimistic.

MYRE: Absolutely. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke recently to Congress and talked about, oh, roughly 2 1/2 years, around the time that Trump's first term would end. So we're getting some very optimistic predictions and not necessarily all in line.

KELLY: Has the U.S. said, whatever the timeline is - a year, 2 1/2 half years - what it is they're looking for in terms of tangible proof of progress?

MYRE: I think for starters, they'd really want to see a full declaration of the nuclear program, which we've never seen before. Fundamental things - how many nuclear weapons does North Korea have? The estimates range from, say, 20 or so at the low end, 60 or maybe more at the high end. The missile program - what's the full scope of that and the nuclear production facilities? So I think that North Korea would really have to open up. We could get a sense of this very soon. Secretary of State Pompeo is now scheduled to head to North Korea on Thursday. That will be his third trip in recent months.

KELLY: Greg, thanks very much.

MYRE: My pleasure.

KELLY: That is national security correspondent Greg Myre. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.