Asia Pacific

North Korea preparing nuclear test site for international inspectors: report

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

North Korea may be preparing for a visit by international inspectors to its shuttered Punggye-ri nuclear test site, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported Wednesday, citing the country’s spy agency.

“Signs have been detected that North Korea is doing some preparations and intelligence-related activity over a possible visit by outside experts, as it shut down the nuclear test site and demolished some of the missile launching facilities at Dongchang-ri,” the National Intelligence Service was quoted as saying by ruling party lawmaker Kim Min-ki.

Pyongyang claimed in May to have dismantled the Punggye-ri site in front of journalists, but did not invite inspectors to confirm the facility’s closure. Critics had lambasted the move as merely for show, saying that it could be easily reversed.

The North agreed to “permanently” decommission key missile facilities under the watch of “experts from relevant countries” and said it is willing to close its main Nyongbyon nuclear complex, if the United States takes “commensurate actions,” South Korean President Moon Jae-in said after a September summit in Pyongyang with North leader Kim Jong Un.

Just after the landmark June summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump, the U.N. nuclear watchdog said it would carry out any verification role it was asked to in North Korea, though that would depend on the ongoing talks between Washington and Pyongyang.

Verification is likely to be a complex task. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has said it could do so, though it mainly focuses on monitoring nuclear materials and sites rather than disarmament.

“The IAEA stands ready to undertake any verification activities in the DPRK that it may be requested to conduct by the countries concerned, subject to authorization by the IAEA’s Board of Governors,” IAEA chief Yukiya Amano said in a statement in June, using the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

IAEA inspectors have not returned to North Korea since they were booted from the country in 2009.

Denuclearization talks between the U.S. and North Korea have hit a wall in the wake of the June summit between the two countries’ leaders in Singapore.

Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor at Tokyo’s International Christian University, said any decision by the North to allow inspectors would be a “visible, yet hollow demonstration that diplomacy is continuing on the peninsula.”

Nagy noted that U.S. intelligence assessments indicate the North is continuing to build up its nuclear program via several underground enrichment sites, making the destruction of Punggye-ri “an insincere gesture.”

“The security establishments in Washington and Tokyo both understand this and they will not be satisfied,” he said.

Trump has repeatedly boasted about what he says are North Korean steps toward denuclearization, hailing the absence of missile or nuclear tests this year and the return of remains of U.S. service members killed in the 1950-53 Korean War as “incredible progress.”

Critics have assailed Trump for his claims, saying there is no evidence the North has taken significant steps toward denuclearization, despite the president’s remarks to the contrary.

As a possible reciprocal move, the North is believed to be seeking an easing of tough international sanctions and a formal declaration of the end of the Korean War, which was halted in an armistice, leaving the U.S. and North still technically in a state of war.

At the June summit, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed to a vaguely worded 1 ½-page joint statement to “work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” while Trump committed to “provide security guarantees” to the regime.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo could meet with a top North Korean official next week in New York or Washington as they seek to arrange a second summit between the two countries’ leaders, media reports have said. The meeting was expected to take place after the Nov. 6 midterm elections in the United States.

Asked about the meeting, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman said only that it had “no meetings to announce.”

Any meeting would likely see Kim Yong Chol, the hard-line, right-hand man of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, as Pompeo’s interlocutor. The U.S.’s top diplomat last met Kim Yong Chol in New York in May ahead of Trump’s landmark June summit with Kim Jong Un in Singapore. Kim Yong Chol later traveled to the White House in Washington, hand delivering a letter from the North Korean leader to Trump.

Trump has said he expects to meet the North Korean leader after the elections in one of three or four locations. The exact timing of the second summit remains unclear, though U.S. national security adviser John Bolton has said it could happen early next year.

On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department said Washington and Seoul had agreed to set up a working group to ensure that inter-Korean economic cooperation will not violate U.N. sanctions on the North.

The two governments reached the agreement during a two-day visit to the South Korean capital by Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative to North Korea, deputy spokesman Robert Palladino said at a news conference.

“The two governments agreed on establishing a new working group that would further strengthen our close coordination on our diplomacy, on our denuclearization efforts, on sanctions implementation, and inter-Korean cooperation that complies with the United Nations sanctions,” he said.

South Korea has pinned its hopes on economic cooperation pushing forward the denuclearization process, though Washington remains skeptical, saying that cross-border projects could undermine the international sanctions regime.