One of the stranger moments to come out of the summit meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Tuesday has received fairly limited attention. In his press conference after signing the four-point joint statement with Kim, Trump brought up a strange technical concession that he claimed to have won from North Korea.
The concession was especially strange because it appeared to be both highly specific and would have necessitated at least some technical input before the summit for Trump to make the ask of Kim. Here’s the relevant bit from the transcript of the press conference:
They secured of all missiles and nuclear tests. They secured the closure of their single primary nuclear test site, all three of them, they’re in an area that’s common around each other. They secured the closure. They secured the commitment to destroy the missile engine testing site. That was not in your agreement.
I got that after we signed the agreement. I said do me a favor. You have this missile engine testing site. We know where it is because of the heat. It is incredible the equipment we have to be honest with you. I said can you close it up. He’s going to close it up.
There’s a lot here—and none of it is particularly clear.
Above alll, what missile engine testing site did Trump mean? Fortunately, Scott LaFoy, one of the sharpest North Korea analysts currently writing, has a good primer available on the possible sites Trump could have meant. I encourage that you read that here.
Scott identifies the sites associated with North Korea’s static testing of liquid propellant engines for ballistic missiles and satellite launch vehicles, including Sohae, Tonghae, and Chamjin. He adds the two cold launch canister test sites: Sinpo and Iha-ri. Incidentally, North Korea had recently dismantled a canister test stand at Iha-ri. Finally, Scott points out that the last remaining possibility could be the Magun-po testing site near Hamhung, associated with North Korea’s burgeoning solid propellant engine development efforts.
Nothing in Trump’s statement makes clear which of these sites he asked Kim to shut down. In fact, if he simply asked Kim to shut down an unspecified missile engine test stand, the North Korean leader may have had no idea what Trump was asking and simply said yes anyway.
If Trump was briefed going into the summit about asking for a specific concession related to this test stand—and I suspect he was if he saw it fit to raise this at the press conference—my hunch is that he was referring to the Magun-po site.
North Korea’s solid propellant engine testing program, if allowed to proceed unfettered, promises significant strategic benefits to the country’s nuclear forces. Missiles like the land-launched Pukguksong-2 medium-range ballistic missile or its predecessor, the Pukguksong-1 submarine-launched ballistic missile, are more responsive, more survivable, and more flexible due to their use of solid propellants over liquid ones.
Missiles using these kinds of propellants and engines do not need to be fueled prior to launch, making them considerably more useful in a scenario where one is expecting a preemptive disarming strike. (Solid fuel engines on an intercontinental-range ballistic missile would also reduce engine burnout times presenting a challenge for nascent U.S. efforts at exploring boost-phase ballistic missile defense.)
As The Diplomat had first reported, the site at Magun-po was most recently involved in a static engine test in October 2017. This engine was new and unknown, according to U.S. intelligence assessments. It may have been an engine for a new type of North Korean intermediate or intercontinental-range missile.
The United States would have a significant interest in freezing North Korean research and development efforts on this front. Each of the other missile engine test sites, associated with North Korea’s liquid propellant engine efforts, would provide less of a benefit at this point.
Whatever the case, it was bizarre of Trump to bring up this specific technical point at his press conference. As far as we know, the North Koreans have made no acknowledgement of this concession. It was not included in the Korean Central News Agency’s report on the agreements that came out of the Singapore summit. It’s possible that with subsequent rounds of U.S.-North Korea talks, this issue may come back up.
For now, this missile engine test stand concession will remain something of a mystery.