Just as Donald Trump was claiming progress in bringing North Korea into line over its nuclear ambitions, Kim Jong Un’s regime announced it was boosting its weapons programs by producing more rocket engines and warhead tips.
Following months of rising tensions that have raised fears of war between Washington and Pyongyang, Trump told supporters at a campaign rally in Phoenix Tuesday night that he was seeing signs of progress in the standoff over North Korea’s efforts to acquire a nuclear-equipped intercontinental ballistic missile.
“I respect the fact that he is starting to respect us,” Trump said of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. “And maybe — probably not, but maybe — something positive can come about.”
But a report released Wednesday by North Korea’s state-run KCNA news agency suggested that Trump’s self-assessment was a touch optimistic. The report claimed that, during a visit to a chemical institute, Kim had ordered staff there to boost their production of solid-fuel rocket engines and rocket warhead tips.
While the typical bellicose threats to the U.S. were conspicuously absent from the report, analysts noted that the images released by KCNA purported to show a previously unseen missile, giving the impression that the internationally sanctioned rocket program continues to advance at pace.
The KCNA report also came shortly after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson struck a more conciliatory stance toward Pyongyang, saying Tuesday that it had “demonstrated some level of restraint that we’ve not seen in the past” by carrying out no provocative actions since the U.N. Security Council voted to impose fresh sanctions on the isolated regime earlier this month.
While North Korea has refrained from fresh missile launches since the sanctions were introduced, tensions have been rekindled to an extent this week by the start of annual 10-day joint military drills between South Korean and U.S. troops, which began Monday. North Korea responded Tuesday by threatening “ruthless” retaliation against Washington and Seoul over the exercises, which it views as a drill for an invasion of its territory.
In other developments, the U.S. Treasury followed up Tuesday from the U.N. Security Council vote by slapping sanctions on a dozen Chinese and Russian individuals and companies that it said had carried out business with North Korea in ways that helped its missile and nuclear programs. China responded by calling on Washington to “immediately correct its mistake” of punishing the Chinese companies.