North Korea wants the world to watch as it blows up its Punggye-ri nuclear test site, the country has said, announcing that it will hold a “ceremony” between May 23 and May 25, inviting foreign journalists to witness what it said would be a “transparent” event.
Skeptics, however, say Pyongyang may have ulterior motives for its announcement late Saturday, pointing to past demonstrations where it carried out similar spectacles to show its commitment to deals it later reneged on.
Leader Kim Jong Un had revealed the plans to shut down the nuclear test site during his summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in last month, during which time the North Korean leader also pledged to work toward the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
“Dismantlement of the nuclear test ground will be done in the following sequence — making all tunnels of the test ground collapse by explosion; completely blocking entries; removing all observation facilities, research institutes and structures of guard units on the ground,” the North’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency.
“In parallel with dismantlement of the nuclear test ground, guards and researchers will be withdrawn and the surrounding area of the test ground be completely closed,” it added.
At last month’s inter-Korean summit, Kim told Moon that he would shutter the site and invite foreign experts and journalists to view the dismantling, South Korea’s presidential office said recently.
According to Saturday’s statement, the Foreign Ministry would invite local press, but international media would be limited to journalists from China, Russia, South Korea, Britain and the United States, due to the testing ground’s “small space.”
It was unclear why journalists from Japan were not invited while media representatives from all other members of the now-defunct six-party talks on denuclearization — plus Britain — would likely be in attendance.
One reason could be that Pyongyang is looking to get Tokyo to ease its hard-line approach to the North. Tokyo has been one of the biggest backers of maintaining the U.S.-led campaign of “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang and has urged Washington to push the nuclear-armed country to abandon not only intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that can hit the United States but also short- and midrange ballistic missiles capable of striking Japan, as well as its chemical and biological weapons stockpile.
“The North seems to have excluded Japan deliberately,” Jo Seong-ryul, a researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy, a think tank run by South Korea’s spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, told the South’s Yonhap news agency. “Japan has been trying to expand the agenda for denuclearization negotiations, and I think there is dissatisfaction with that.”
A senior South Korean government official echoed this, saying that the decision to exclude Japan was likely part of Pyongyang’s maneuvering to bring Tokyo to the negotiating table.
“I think it is related to the fact that official dialogue between the North and Japan has not yet been carried out,” the official was quoted as saying.
Perhaps more importantly, though, Saturday’s statement did not mention invitations to experts or international inspectors, and it was unclear if that offer had been rescinded.
The announcement comes days after Washington announced that the historic summit between Kim and Trump will be held June 12 in Singapore. South Korea, which has played the role of mediator to set up the meeting, has said Kim has genuine interest in relinquishing his nuclear weapons in return for economic benefits.
If the plan goes ahead, the timing would place it just as Moon visits Washington for a meeting with Trump on May 22.
Trump welcomed the North Korean announcement.
“North Korea has announced that they will dismantle Nuclear Test Site this month, ahead of the big Summit Meeting on June 12th,” he tweeted. “Thank you, a very smart and gracious gesture! Thank you, a very smart and gracious gesture!”
A spokesman for South Korea’s presidential office also welcomed the announcement Sunday, saying the move would help build trust ahead of the Trump-Kim summit.
Spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom also said that the North’s invitation of foreign journalists highlights that the isolated country will carry out the dismantling in a transparent manner.
“We hope that the sound of dynamite blowing up the Punggye-ri tunnels will be a gun salute in a journey toward a Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons,” he said.
Still, lingering doubts remain about whether Kim would ever agree to fully relinquish the weapons he likely views as his only guarantee of survival.
North Korea declared its nuclear forces complete late last year after it conducted its most powerful nuclear test to date in September and launched ICBMs that experts said were capable of hitting most, if not all, of the continental United States.
As part of talks to fine-tune the agenda for the Kim-Trump summit, the U.S. has reportedly demanded that North Korea ship some of its nuclear weapons, fissile material and long-range missiles out of the country within months after the meeting, Yonhap said Sunday, quoting unidentified sources.
The U.S. had said sanctions won’t be relaxed unless the demand is met, the sources said, adding that the North’s response was not known.
At a ruling party meeting last month, the North announced that it had suspended all tests of nuclear devices and ICBMs, and the plan to close the nuclear test site.
According to the South Korean presidential office, Kim told Moon that reports that tunnels at the Punggye-ri site had collapsed — making it unusable — were not true.
“Some say that we are terminating facilities that are not functioning, but you will see that we have two more tunnels that are bigger than the existing ones and that they are in good condition,” Kim was quoted as saying.
The North Korea-watching 38 North blog said on April 30 that data detailing the test site acquired using synthetic aperture radar, a form of radar that creates two- and three-dimensional images of objects, including landscapes, corroborates Kim’s statement that two tunnels remain viable.
The North also said for the first time at the ruling party meeting that it had been conducting “subcritical” nuclear tests. These refer to experiments involving a subcritical mass of nuclear materials that allow scientists to examine the performance and safety of weapons without triggering a nuclear chain reaction and explosion.
“The North Koreans probably have a high level of confidence in their basic nuclear design, having successfully tested a thermonuclear device last year,” said Euan Graham, a former British diplomat who served in Pyongyang and who currently serves as the director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Australia. “That was their sixth nuclear explosion — the same number as India has conducted. If they need to refine the warhead design further, they probably have the capability to go on testing at a subcritical level and using computer simulations, as have the established nuclear powers.”
The spectacle of the North shuttering and even destroying its nuclear facilities is not new.
In June 2008, international broadcasters were allowed to air the demolishing of a cooling tower at the Nyongbyon reactor site, a year after the North reached an agreement with the U.S. and four other nations to disable its nuclear facilities in return for an aid package worth about $400 million.
But that deal, reached during the six-party talks, eventually collapsed after Pyongyang refused to accept U.S.-proposed verification methods.
Skeptics say Saturday’s announcement amounted to the North Koreans selling something of little value in the quest for denuclearization in hopes of reaping the benefits, including media attention, in return.
“This is flogging a tired old horse and probably scoping for some international help for the environmental clear-up to follow,” said Graham.
Others say the move could be underscoring an important shift away from nuclear weapons and toward the economy, which Kim has said his country is aiming to do.
“The news describing the North Korea closing of the nuclear test site is quite detailed,” Joe Cirincione, president of the San Francisco-based Ploughshares Fund, which seeks to reduce nuclear weapon stockpiles, wrote on Twitter. “This is a serious move. I understand the skepticism of my colleagues, but something significant may be happening here.”