As the correspondent for the Koreas, I find myself asking those questions a lot, no more so than now after the much-anticipated Hanoi summit ended without reaching a deal on denuclearisation.
Most of the world’s media have no free access to North Korea, and Kim Jong-un’s Ryongsong Residence isn’t really taking calls from journalists. The best any analyst or correspondent can do is read the signals coming from Pyongyang.
And in the past week we’ve had a flurry of them. This has led many to believe that Kim Jong-un is reaching for the stars and is getting ready to launch a satellite. Is he? And if he is, surely that would send a very different message to the charm offensive of the last year which led to several historic summits.
It started with reports from the South Korean intelligence service which suggested work was taking place at Sohae, one of North Korea’s main rocket launch sites.
The site has never been used to launch the type of missiles that ignited Donald Trump’s Twitter feed and earned Kim Jong-un the nickname of “Rocketman”. But Sohae has been used for five satellite launches – two of which were successful. It has also been used to test some of the engines used in some of North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
Pyongyang started dismantling the site last year. It was taken as a gesture of goodwill, a sign Kim Jong-un was willing to engage in talks with the US and South Korea. But this work was halted in August when negotiations stalled. Now came testimony from intelligence sources in the South that the North appeared to be “putting back a roof and a door” on the facility.
No big deal, right?
Later that week, satellite images analysed by both the Centre for Strategic and International Studies’ (CSIS) Beyond Parallel programme and 38 North suggested that this was more than a bit of DIY.
The two groups noted rapid progress had been made rebuilding parts of the site.