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What do recent satellite images suggest about North Korea nuclear capabilities?

Recent reports are casting doubt on North Korea's intentions. Analysis of satellite photos of the country's facilities have led some to infer that the North is continuing to improve its capabilities. In addition, the U.S. intelligence community has reportedly concluded that they have no intention of giving up their nuclear weapons. John Yang talks with former State Department official Joel Wit.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    U.S. and North Korean officials will soon be talking again at the highest levels, following last month's historic meeting between President Trump and North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un.

    John Yang has the story.

  • JOHN YANG:

    Judy, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo left Washington early this morning for an Asian trip that is to include a day-and-a-half in North Korea. He hopes to begin to flesh out details of Kim Jong-un's broad summit commitment to work toward denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

    But recent reports cast doubt on North Korea's intentions. Analysis of satellite photos of the country's nuclear and missile facilities have led some to conclude that they are continuing to improve their capabilities. And, according to reports, the U.S. intelligence community has concluded that North Korea is concealing some of its nuclear program and that the country has no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons.

    Joel Wit was on the team that negotiated a nuclear agreement with North Korea during the Clinton administration. He's the founder and publisher of the Web site 38 North, which focuses on North Korea.

    Joel Wit, thanks for joining us.

    Some groups like the Middlebury Institute of International Studies look at the satellite images of construction going on at the nuclear research facility at Yongbyon, the solid rocket motor factory at Hamhung, and they conclude that North Korea has no intention of giving up its weapons and its capabilities.

    When you look at those satellite photos, what do you conclude?

  • JOEL WIT:

    Well, what I conclude is that North Korea, like any other country, is continuing to improve its weapons capabilities, until they have a detailed agreement with the United States on denuclearization.

    I think it's wrong to expect them to stop doing that before they have that kind of agreement. And their behavior is like any other country, the United States, the Soviet Union. We all continue to build while we were negotiating.

  • JOHN YANG:

    And, conceivably, the building capability that you're willing to negotiate away.

  • JOEL WIT:

    That's exactly it.

    So, what we're all doing or what we did during the Cold War, what North Korea is doing now, is building up leverage. And, secondly, negotiations may fail, so North Korea doesn't want to be caught short if the negotiations failed and it stopped doing all of its weapons programs.

  • JOHN YANG:

    In these negotiations, though, could one side ask the other to stop, to halt, to sort of freeze operations as a confidence-building measure?

  • JOEL WIT:

    Well, they could.

    And, in fact, as you know, the North Koreans have stopped testing their missiles and stopped testing nuclear weapons, so they have done that unilaterally.

  • JOHN YANG:

    What are the limitations of this sort of analysis of satellite imagery, as opposed to human intelligence on the ground?

  • JOEL WIT:

    Well, you know, all of these means of intelligence analysis have shortcomings.

    So, if you were — if I was in the U.S. government, I would have a variety of sources of information. And I would put them all together to come up with a conclusion. The problem with the satellite imagery we use is that we don't get it every day, and sometimes we don't even get it for long periods of time.

    So, we have to surmise from these snapshots what's going on.

  • JOHN YANG:

    There's also been a difference in voices from the administration about the timetable for all of this.

    Within the past week, we heard slightly different versions from the national security adviser, John Bolton, and from the president himself at a rally in North Dakota.

    Let's take a listen and then talk about it on the other side.

  • JOHN BOLTON:

    With North Korean cooperation, with full disclosure of all their chemical and biological, nuclear programs, ballistic missiles, physically, we would be able to dismantle the overwhelming bulk of their programs within a year.

  • PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

    So, we have things cooking now. You're going to be so happy. But, when people rush it, it's like rushing the turkey out of the stove, it's not going to be as good. The longer we take, the better.

  • JOHN YANG:

    How do you reconcile those two things?

  • JOEL WIT:

    Well, you know, this isn't capitulation. It's negotiation.

    And John Bolton, I think, would like capitulation. And, in that sense, it would take a year.

  • JOHN YANG:

    Capitulating from the North Koreans.

  • JOEL WIT:

    Yes, the North Koreans would capitulate. They would tell us about everything they have gotten, they have built, and then we would disable and dismantle it.

    The president, I think, is being more realistic here. It's going to be a negotiation. There's going to be give and take between the two sides. It's going to take time. And that's something we all need to understand.

  • JOHN YANG:

    And John Bolton also mentioned chemical and biological weapons, in addition to nuclear weapons. Is that expanding the field a little bit here?

  • JOEL WIT:

    It's definitely expanding the field.

    The agreement reads that the summit doesn't include all of those different types of weapons. So he's looking for everything, and he wants to do it all in one year. So that's not possible.

  • JOHN YANG:

    And with Mike Pompeo now headed to know now, in your judgment, what are the chances that the sort of broad commitment of Singapore translates into an eventual denuclearized Korean Peninsula?

  • JOEL WIT:

    Well, it may translate into that, but it's not going to translate into that as a result of one trip for two days to Pyongyang.

    This is going to be a process. It's going to take time to negotiate an agreement. You need negotiators, but you also need the secretary of state and the president to be actively involved throughout the process.

  • JOHN YANG:

    Joel Wit, founder and co-editor of 38 North, thank you very much.

  • JOEL WIT:

    Thank you.

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