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Why North Korea will still pose a threat after dismantling its missile test facility

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WASHINGTON (Circa) -- North Korea has begun to dismantle one of its key missile testing facilities and the Trump administration couldn't be happier, but there is some skepticism as to whether North Korea's gesture will have any effect on its ability to pose a nuclear threat.

Analysts with the North Korea-focused publication 38 North released satellite photos of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station on Monday, which purportedly show evidence that the facility is being deconstructed. President Donald Trump hailed the effort the next day as a good sign of things to come.

"We’re also pursuing the denuclearization of North Korea and a new future of prosperity, security and peace on the Korean peninsula and all of Asia," said Trump, while delivering a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization. "New images, just today, show that North Korea has begun the process of dismantling a key missile site and we appreciate that."

The images show construction equipment on-site dismantling key structures inside the facility. 38 North highlighted the rail-mounted processing facility, the area used to prep launch vehicles before putting them on the launch pad, and a test stand as two of the key pieces being taken down.

Sohae has served as North Korea's main satellite launch facility since 2012, according to 38 North, but it's real purpose is believed to have been a test ground for intercontinental ballistic missiles. The technology used to put objects into space is often dual-use -- meaning it can be used in weapons systems.

"Since these facilities are believed to have played an important role in the development of technologies for the North’s intercontinental ballistic missile program, these efforts represent a significant confidence building measure on the part of North Korea," said 38 North's analysts in a post on their website.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hailed the dismantling of Sohae on Tuesday, claiming it is the result of President Trump's summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore last month.

"It'd be entirely consistent with the commitment that Chairman Kim made to President Trump when the two of them were in Singapore together," said Pompeo. "He had made that commitment to them orally. We've been pressing for there to be inspectors on the ground when that engine test facility is dismantled, consistent with Chairman Kim's commitment."

But some North Korea experts are cautious about what this gesture means for the threat North Korea poses. Some believe the facility is no longer useful to the Kim regime for technical purposes, but could be good for diplomacy.

"Most of all, retiring an old nuclear site or missile launch pad has absolutely no relevance to the cold reality that North Korea owns an operational nuclear weapons and ballistic missile arsenal whose capabilities continue to grow," Lee Sung Yoon, professor of Korean Studies at Tuft's University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, told the Straits Times.

The Sohae facility served as a testing ground for liquid fuel-propelled ballistic missiles, which require time and special facilities to launch. North Korea has made advances in solid fuel missiles, which can be fired much faster from mobile platforms -- making them harder to track.

It's also important to note that North Korea was recently caught expanding the Chemical Material Institute, a vitally important facility responsible for developing the intricate equipment necessary to launch missiles. Additionally, U.S. intelligence officials believe North Korea is seeking to conceal, rather than abandon, its nuclear program, according to the Washington Post.

Pompeo noted that there is still work to be done, despite North Korea's apparent gesture at Sohae.

"They need to completely, fully denuclearize," he told reporters Tuesday. "That's the steps Chairman Kim committed to and that the world has demanded through UN Security Council resolutions. It's that straightforward."

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