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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 20 July 2018

North Korea 'rapidly' improving nuclear facility despite Trump meet

The US is also pressing ahead with plans for a $1bn radar to spot incoming missiles from the peninsula pariah 

A photo released by the U.S. Northern Command Alaskan NORAD Region/Alaskan Command/11th Air Force shows the Cobra Dane radar, a single faced ground-based, L-band phased-array radar located at Eareckson Air Station, Shemya, Alaska. (Chief Petty Officer Brandon Raile/U.S. Air Force via AP)
A photo released by the U.S. Northern Command Alaskan NORAD Region/Alaskan Command/11th Air Force shows the Cobra Dane radar, a single faced ground-based, L-band phased-array radar located at Eareckson Air Station, Shemya, Alaska. (Chief Petty Officer Brandon Raile/U.S. Air Force via AP)

North Korea is “rapidly” improving its nuclear research facility, a monitor said on Wednesday, despite declaring a commitment to denuclearisation of the peninsula at the recent Singapore summit.

The nuclear-armed North's leader Kim Jong Un promised to "work toward" the goal at a landmark summit in the city-state earlier this month with US President Donald Trump.

But the Singapore meeting failed to clearly define denuclearisation or produce a specific timeline towards dismantling the North's atomic weapons arsenal.

Trump claimed the process would start quickly, saying last week that "It will be a total denuclearisation, which is already taking place."

But recent satellite imagery showed that not only were operations continuing at present at the North's main Yongbyon nuclear site, it was also carrying out infrastructure works, said the respected 38 North website.

"Commercial satellite imagery from June 21 indicates that improvements to the infrastructure at... Yongbyon NuclearScientific Research Centre are continuing at a rapid pace," it said.

It noted "continued operations" at the North's uranium enrichment plant and several new installations at the site – including an engineering office and a driveway to a building housing a nuclear reactor.

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But continued operations at the site "should not be seen as having any relationship with North Korea's pledge to denuclearise", it added.

Nuclear officials could be "expected to proceed with business as usual until specific orders are issued from Pyongyang", it said.

The North last month blew up its aged but only nuclear test site at Punggye-ri – where it had staged six atomic tests – in a show of goodwill before the summit.

But Pyongyang has kept its counsel on the denuclearisation issue since the meeting, although state media have dialled down propaganda against the US, long dubbed the "imperialist enemy."

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been pushing for more follow-up talks to flesh out details over denuclearisation but no date has been set for when they would take place.

It is not only North Korea that working as usual with the US military pressing ahead with plans for a $1 billion missile defence radar in Hawaii to identify any ballistic missiles that are fired from North Korea or elsewhere, officials said Tuesday.

The $1 billion system would spot warheads on missiles headed for Hawaii and other U.S. states, and provide that information to ground-based interceptors in Alaska designed to shoot them down. It would be able to distinguish warheads from decoys that are designed to trick missile defence systems.

The radar would help give the Alaska missiles "better eyes," said Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii and a supporter of the project.

So far, lawmakers have appropriated $61 million for planning but not funds for construction. Schatz, who serves on the defence subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he doesn't have much doubt about the likelihood of follow-on funding.

"We already have robust capabilities, but working with Admiral Harris, we wanted to double down and make sure we have the most powerful combination of missile interceptors and radar systems anywhere," Schatz said in a phone interview.

David Santoro, a director and senior fellow for nuclear policy at the Pacific Forum think tank in Honolulu, said threats from North Korea were increasing as Pyongyang developed more sophisticated missiles and nuclear weapons.

"Over the past few weeks, we have seen a so-called peace initiative developing, but the reality is the threat is still there. It's not going away," Santoro said. The U.S. would be expected to build a radar system to counter the threats, he said.