New commercial satellite imagery has provided the first definitive evidence that North Korea is dismantling its Punggye-ri nuclear test site ahead of a scheduled ceremony next week to mark the event, U.S. researchers said Monday.
The North Korea-watching 38 North website said in a report that imagery from May 7 showed that the process was “already well under way” at the site, which has been used for each of the North’s six underground nuclear test explosions.
It said several key operational support buildings, located just outside the north, west and south tunnel portals, had been razed, while some of the rails for mining carts, which had led from the tunnels to their respective spoil piles, had apparently been removed.
Additionally, it said, some carts appeared to have been tipped over or disassembled, and several small sheds or outbuildings around the site removed.
Still, the report said, other more substantial buildings around the facility remained intact, including the two largest buildings at the command center, and the main administrative support area.
The website also said a small square-shaped foundation and a small shed had been newly placed on the north portal spoil pile. It said that while it is too early to determine their intended purpose, “it is conceivably for a future camera position to record the closure of the west portal.”
It also said that “no tunnel entrances appear to have yet been permanently closed.”
“This may be because on May 12, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) announced that the final dismantlement of the Punggye-ri nuclear test ground would be witnessed by foreign journalists and would involve the ‘collapsing all of its tunnels with explosions, blocking its entrances, and removing all observation facilities, research buildings and security posts,’ ” 38 North said.
The North Korean announcement said the ceremony would take place between May 23 and 25, weather permitting.
South Korea’s military confirmed the assessment, saying the North was conducting “preparatory work” so that it can carry out the shutdown. It did not specify what the military has seen.
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 the KCNA announcement, the North will invite local press, but international media will be limited to journalists from China, Russia, South Korea, Britain and the United States, due to the testing ground’s “small space.”
On Tuesday, Seoul’s Unification Ministry announced that the North had invited eight journalists from the South to witness the event.
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.
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.
A spokeswoman for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), the international organization that keeps watch for nuclear tests, told The Japan Times in an email that it has yet to be invited to observe the dismantlement.
“I can confirm that we welcome the announcement and are closely monitoring the developments,” spokeswoman Elisabeth Waechter said.
The United States and South Korea have welcomed the announcement as the beginning of North Korea’s nuclear disarmament. It comes ahead of a historic summit meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un scheduled for June 12 in Singapore.
Skeptics, however, say Pyongyang may have ulterior motives for highlighting the site’s demolition, pointing to past demonstrations where it carried out similar spectacles to show its commitment to deals it later reneged on.
South Korea’s mass-circulation JoongAng Ilbo daily said in an editorial Monday that “it is regrettable that North Korea did not invite nuclear experts to the destruction of the test site.”
“If North Korea has really decided to denuclearize, it has no reason not to invite them,” the editorial said. “The White House underscored the importance of shutting down the test site and allowing thorough inspection and verification by nuclear specialists. If North Korea shuns them, it will once again face criticism that the dismantlement was just for show.”
The two Koreas were set to hold a high-level meeting Wednesday to discuss setting up military and Red Cross talks aimed at reducing border tension and restarting reunions between families separated by the Korean War.
Seoul’s Unification Ministry said Tuesday the meeting at a border truce village will discuss ways to carry out peace commitments made between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in in their summit last month. The discussions may also include setting up working-level talks between the countries’ sports officials over plans to field combined teams in certain sports at the Asian Games in August.