SEOUL / PUNGGYE-RI, NORTH KOREA - North Korea carried out what it said was the demolition of its nuclear test site Thursday, setting off a series of explosions over several hours in the presence of foreign journalists.
The explosions at the nuclear test site deep in the mountains of the North’s sparsely populated northeast were centered on three tunnels at the underground site and a number of buildings in the surrounding area.
The planned closing was previously announced by leader Kim Jong Un ahead of his summit with U.S. President Donald Trump, which is scheduled to take place next month.
The demolition came as the North lobbed another verbal salvo at Washington, calling Vice President Mike Pence a “political dummy” and saying it is just as ready to meet in a nuclear confrontation as at the negotiating table.
North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Institute released a statement confirming that a ceremony was held during the day for what it described as the site’s complete demolition.
“Dismantling the nuclear test ground was done in such a way as to make all the tunnels of the test ground collapse by explosion and completely close the tunnel entrances,” said the statement carried by the country’s official Korean Central News Agency.
“There were neither leakage of radioactive materials nor any adverse impact on the surrounding ecological environment,” it added.
The North’s decision to close the Punggye-ri nuclear test site has generally been seen as a welcome gesture by Kim to set a positive tone ahead of the summit. Even so, it is not an irreversible move and would need to be followed by many more significant measures to meet Trump’s demands for real denuclearization.
By bringing in a small group of television journalists and other members of the news media, the North is likely hoping to have dramatic images of the closing — including explosions to collapse tunnel entrances — broadcast around the world.
The North did not invite international nuclear weapons inspectors to the ceremony. Experts are divided over whether the demolition will render the site useless. Sceptics say the facility has already outlived its usefulness with six successful nuclear tests in the bag and can be quickly rebuilt if needed.
The first blast visiting journalists witnessed happened at around 11 a.m. local time. North Korean officials said it collapsed the north tunnel, which was used for five nuclear tests between 2009 and last year.
Two other explosions at around 2:20 p.m. and 4 p.m. demolished the west and south tunnels, according to officials.
Thursday’s demolition also involved the destruction of observation posts and barracks used by guards and other workers at the facility. Another tunnel on the eastern side of the facility was shut down after an initial nuclear test in 2006.
The journalists who were allowed to witness the demolition arrived in the morning and stayed at the site for around nine hours.
“There was a huge explosion, you could feel it. Dust came at you, the heat came at you. It was extremely loud,” wrote Tom Cheshire, a journalist for Sky News who was among those invited to attend the ceremony, on the broadcaster’s website.
Yonhap news agency, citing South Korean pool reporters at the scene, said multiple explosions were heard throughout the day, beginning at 11 a.m. until 4:17 p.m.
Getting to the remote site required an 11-hour overnight train journey from Wonsan, a port city east of the capital, Pyongyang.
The outburst at Pence earlier Thursday, issued in the name of a top Foreign Ministry official, comes on the heels of another sharp rebuke of Trump’s newly appointed national security adviser, John Bolton, and has raised concerns that a major gap has opened between the two sides just weeks before the June 12 summit in Singapore.
In both cases, Pyongyang was trying to push back against hardline comments suggesting North Korea may end up like Libya if it doesn’t move forward quickly and irreversibly with concrete measures to get rid of its nuclear weapons.
Choe Son Hui, a vice minister of foreign affairs, was quoted Thursday by the North’s state-run news agency slamming as “ignorant” and “stupid” comments Pence made in an interview with Fox News that compared the nuclear-capable North to Libya. Libya gave up its program at an early stage only to see its longtime dictator overthrown and brutally killed years later.
The summit plan has hit a number of speed bumps recently as both sides have begun trading barbs and taking tougher positions. Trump met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Tuesday at the White House for consultations and suggested the summit could be delayed or even called off entirely, saying, “There’s a very substantial chance it won’t work out.”
“There are certain conditions that we want, and I think we’ll get those conditions,” the U.S. president said. “And if we don’t, we don’t have the meeting.”
Even so, both sides still seem to want to hold the meeting, which would be unprecedented.
Success in talks would be a huge accomplishment for Trump. Meeting with the U.S. president as an equal on the world stage would be a major coup for Kim.
Information from staff added.