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What North Korea's Reconstruction Activity Signals To The U.S.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

North Korea seems to be sending signals. Satellite images taken yesterday show the regime has almost completely reconstructed one satellite launching station. And there are also reports, which NPR has not confirmed, of activity at another site related to the country's missile program. The White House is taking notice. Here's what national security adviser John Bolton told Fox & Friends about these developments this morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN BOLTON: We're going to study the situation carefully. As the president said, it would be very, very disappointing if they were taking this direction.

SHAPIRO: To help us understand this moment in U.S.-North Korean relations, we've called back Siegfried Hecker. He is a nuclear scientist who has been to see North Korea's nuclear sites many times. He's also an emeritus professor at Stanford University. Welcome back.

SIEGFRIED HECKER: It's my pleasure, Ari.

SHAPIRO: You and I spoke just over a week ago, right before the summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un in Hanoi. And you were pretty upbeat then about things moving in the right direction. Now that the summit has failed to produce a deal and we're seeing this new activity, how are you feeling?

HECKER: Well, today I'm less optimistic. I'm somewhat concerned because it looks like the U.S. may have moved the goal post and made it unreachable for the North Koreans at this time.

SHAPIRO: What do you mean when you say the U.S. seems to be moving the goal posts?

HECKER: Well, what it seemed to me - the U.S. was going in with the understanding this is going to be a phased denuclearization with normalization.

SHAPIRO: Getting rid of sanctions, those sorts of things.

HECKER: That's exactly right. What it seems, from what we can hear from what happened at Hanoi - the president encouraged Kim Jong Un to go bigger. And I think that meant actually giving up everything now, and North Korea is not prepared to do that.

SHAPIRO: So after those talks collapsed, it became apparent that North Korea seemed to resume work on the sites that we were talking about. North Korea had to know that the U.S. would see that activity. What kind of message do you think they are trying to send?

HECKER: Oh, there was no question the North Koreans know. And quite frankly, so far, the activities that this satellite launch station - from a technical standpoint, that's really not the big concern. They just put it back to where it was at the beginning of 2018. So the technical message, you know, is really not that concerning. However, there's definitely a political message in that. They were sending a message to us.

SHAPIRO: Do you think this activity is the message itself that North Korea wanted to send, or is this a lead-up to something like launching something into space?

HECKER: Well, that's what we're really going to have to watch. You know, the space launches - the North Koreans over the years had insisted that they have the right through space launches. However, almost every one of the space launches, then, really took diplomacy off the tracks because the Americans consider that to be a step, also, in the direction of missiles. And so it would be indeed very unfortunate if they went ahead with an actual space launch. I would say even engine tests would, at this point, be a concern.

SHAPIRO: Is this about trying to get America's attention, trying to get more leverage? What do you think is the goal here?

HECKER: Well, as I tried to analyze - so how would I react, you know, if I were the North Koreans? They must be looking for leverage. I mean, they walked away from Hanoi with nothing. I think they must be looking for ways that they can send a message to - look; we can still do more things - however, not to be such a strong message that it's a provocation that would then turn the Americans off.

SHAPIRO: You've followed this relationship for decades, and we're talking here about just a few weeks. Is there enough information here to really tell what direction the U.S.-North Korea relationship is going in?

HECKER: Well, you know, the peculiar thing is most people, including myself, have had difficulty giving President Trump credit for turning things around with North Korea. But he did. You know, Singapore moved us away from the brink of war, and he seemed to indicate in Hanoi that he still has this special relationship. And even since then, he still indicates that, look. We're going to get over this. We're going to solve this problem. And so it could well be - President Trump is different than what we've seen over the last 19 years. What we've seen in the last 19 years has failed terribly. I thought we were so close to taking a next big step, and we couldn't quite get there. My hope is that perhaps we will.

SHAPIRO: Siegfried Hecker, a senior fellow emeritus at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford speaking with us on Skype. Thank you so much.

HECKER: It's been my pleasure, Ari. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.