North Korea has begun dismantling nuclear test site, experts say
By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 14, 2018
SEOUL, South Korea — Satellite images show that North Korea has begun dismantling its nuclear-test site, razing several key buildings and removing rails weeks ahead of its summit with the United States, according to a monitoring website.
South Korea, meanwhile, said it will hold a high-level meeting with the North Wednesday to discuss measures focusing on reducing border tensions and resuming reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 war.
They will be the first such talks since the leaders of the two Koreas agreed to work toward peace and the “complete denuclearization” of the divided peninsula during their landmark April 27 summit, which was held in the border truce village of Panmunjom.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced his country would dismantle its northeastern Punggye-ri nuclear-test facilities “to transparently guarantee the discontinuance of the nuclear test.”
The North said it will hold a ceremony at the site next week to allow local and international journalists to witness the efforts.
The commercial satellite images from May 7 “provided the first definitive evidence that dismantlement of the test site was already well underway,” according to 38 North, a website that tracks North Korean activity.
Several key operational support buildings outside the north, west and south portals were razed and some rails for mining carts have apparently been removed, 38 North said.
It also said some carts seem to have tipped over or been disassembled and several small sheds have been removed since its last analysis in late April.
The ventilation system for the tunnel system under Mount Mantap, which covers the testing facilities, also was apparently being broken down, the report added.
The report said plenty of work remains, presumably left for the journalists to observe at the ceremony, which the North has said will be between May 23 and 25, depending on weather.
The two largest buildings at the command center and the main administrative support area remained intact, and no tunnel entrances appear to have been permanently closed, 38 North said.
The North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency issued a rare press release last week announcing plans to use explosions to collapse all of its tunnels, block entrances and remove all observation facilities, research buildings and security posts.
The dismantling of the mountainous complex, which has been the site of all six nuclear tests conducted by North Korea since 2006, is part of its promise to stop nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests ahead of the first-ever U.S.-North Korean summit.
Some experts have said the site had already been rendered unusable after reports that the mountain was on the verge of collapse after the sixth and most powerful underground blast took place in September.
The North also is widely believed to have as many as 60 nuclear weapons and production facilities that were not affected.
But President Donald Trump, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and others have welcomed the decision, saying it’s a measure of the North’s sincerity in its recent outreach to the international community.
“This would be a preliminary step toward complete denuclearization,” Moon said Monday, according to a transcript provided by his office.
Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon will lead the South Korean delegation at Wednesday’s talks in Panmunjom, while the senior North Korean delegate will be Ri Son Gwon, head of the agency in charge of inter-Korean exchanges, according to the ministry.
The meeting between Moon and Kim resulted in few specifics and was largely seen as a prelude to the first-ever U.S.-North Korean summit, which Trump has said will be held June 12 in Singapore. Washington is demanding the verifiable dismantling of the North’s nuclear weapons program.
But the two Koreas made strides toward improving bilateral relations by promising to work toward replacing the armistice that ended the war in 1953 with a peace treaty.
They also agreed to stop all hostile acts over “land, sea and air” and to resume family reunions on Aug. 15.
“We will lay the groundwork for the sustainable development of inter-Korean relations and lasting peace by discussing implementation measures of the Panmunjom declaration,” the ministry said, referring to the summit agreement.
Stars and Stripes reporter Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this report.