North Korea To Demolish Nuclear Test Site Before Trump Meeting

FILE - In this March 7, 2018, file photo, people watch a TV screen showing images of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, center, and U.S. President Donald Trump at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has always wanted to lead the diplomacy aimed at ending the North Korean nuclear crisis, even as he was overshadowed in his first year in office by a belligerent standoff between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. Korean letters on the screen read: "Thawing Korean Peninsula." (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon, File)

FILE – In this March 7, 2018, file photo, people watch a TV screen showing images of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, center, and U.S. President Donald Trump at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has always wanted to lead the diplomacy aimed at ending the North Korean nuclear crisis, even as he was overshadowed in his first year in office by a belligerent standoff between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. Korean letters on the screen read: “Thawing Korean Peninsula.” (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon, File)


North Korea’ Foreign Ministry has announced that North Korea will dismantle its primary nuclear testing facility at Mount Mantap’s nuclear test facility, Punggye-ri, which has been the site of all six of North Korea’s nuclear tests.

“The Nuclear Weapon Institute and other concerned institutions are taking technical measures for dismantling the northern nuclear test ground of the DPRK in order to ensure transparency of discontinuance of the nuclear test,” said the announcement. DPRK is an acronym for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The North said they plan to invite journalists from the United States, South Korea, China, Russia and Britain to inspect the dismantling process.

Analysts say the closure of the site is mostly symbolic and doesn’t represent a material step toward denuclearization.

The closing of the facility was speculated upon a couple of days ago:

Satellite images taken since last month’s inter-Korean summit show a steady reduction in the number of buildings around North Korea’s known nuclear test site, built under Mount Mantap in the Punggye-ri area in the north of the country.

“At the very least, this is a welcome PR move,” said Jeffrey Lewis, head of the East Asia program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif.

“Over the past two weeks, five or six buildings have inexplicably come down,” Lewis said, citing commercial satellite images from the San Francisco-based firm Planet Labs that have a resolution comparable to Google Maps. “Something is clearly happening there.”

The big, main buildings are still there but the smaller, more peripheral ones at the north and south portals, the entrances to the main tunnels, have come down, Lewis said.

This could be part of the preparations for inviting journalists and experts to watch the closure of the site, which, Lewis said, could be as simple – and as reversible – as blocking the portals.

“Shutting down the test site is something they can easily do. It’s just tunnels so they can seal the entrances – but they can also unseal them,” he said.

“And the tunnels are always going to be there,” he added, unless North Korea blows up the whole site.

Now we know more. The operation will be carried out in the window of May 23-25, before the meeting between Kim and President Trump in Singapore. It will involve collapsing all of its tunnels with explosions, blocking its entrances, and removing all observation facilities, research buildings and security posts. The demolition will only be open to journalists from South Korea, the US, China, Russia, and Britain and it will not include nuclear experts or independent verification. But it is still a significant step forward.

There is a lot of debate over the condition of the test facility after having had six nukes tested there.

Consensus says there were two tunnels remaining and we know construction was being carried out on those tunnels in what looked like readying them for a future test after the last nuclear explosion. The sudden shift from “the site is still viable” to “holy smokes the whole mountain is going to collapse” seems to have more to do with opposition to Trump’s North Korea policy than it does to do with geology or engineering.

This has generated all manner of dumbfu**ery from people who really should know better. There is zero indication that Trump or Pompeo or Bolton or Mattis are going to sign onto a major economic package for North Korea without some very stringent inspection requirements and a great deal of transparency from North Korea. And if a major aid package is what it takes to remove verifiably remove nukes and end a 60 year standoff, then sign me up.

It is way, way too early to declare victory but the signs are promising. I suspect there are two parallel reasons for what seems like a legitimate effort on the part of North Korea to change its relationship with the West. First, the North Korean economy–and by that I mean the economy that affects the upper crust of the North Korean oligarchy–is in much worse shape than we realize. That would not be surprising. North Korea is a very hard intelligence target. If you flash back to around 1987-88, the CIA was predicting the Soviet economy would catch up to the US in about a decade. So we are hardly omniscient. While Kim is willing to starve peasants on a rather prodigal level, he has to keep the ruling clique satisfied. Second, Kim probably arrived at the same conclusion that the South Koreans did which was Trump was perfectly willing to go to war to prevent North Korea from obtaining a nuclear equipped ICBM and he wasn’t overly concerned about the extent to which South Korea would be collateral damage.

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