North Korea declares its nuclear test site closed after a ‘huge explosion’

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Summary

 

Despite the last week’s ructions followed after John Bolton’s comments regarding a nuclear deal, North Korea followed through on a pledge to blow up tunnels used for nuclear testing. The Kim regime invited foreign journalists from Russia, China, South Korea and the United States to witness a series of explosions on Thursday afternoon. The journalists spent 12 hours on a train, four hours on a bus and one-hour hiking through the mountains to get to the destination. They saw the explosions from an observation stand located about 500 yards away. However, it is still unclear what exactly North Korea had done to the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site because none of the nuclear experts were allowed to observe the event.

 

According to one of the reports from the scene, the north portal tunnels were collapsed with dynamite at around 11 a.m. local. Later, both the west and south portal tunnels were destroyed, as well as barracks, observation towers and other buildings around the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site. Many experts believe that this event is an important diplomatic step towards a peaceful change. However, skeptics say that the facility was old and it would not be hard to rebuild it if needed.   

 

 

North Korea declares its nuclear test site closed after a ‘huge explosion’

 

TOKYO —  North Korea claimed to have destroyed its nuclear testing site Thursday afternoon, setting off a series of explosions over several hours, apparently to collapse the underground tunnels in which it had detonated six nuclear bombs over the past 11 years.

The fact that the Kim regime went ahead with the destruction of the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site signals that it is still willing to embark on a diplomatic journey with the United States despite the recent ructions.

Both Washington and Pyongyang have threatened to cancel a summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un scheduled to be held in Singapore next month. Earlier Thursday, a top aide to Kim said the U.S. must decide whether to “meet us in a meeting room or encounter us at nuclear-to-nuclear showdown.”

But later Thursday, the regime appeared to make good on its promise to close the testing site.

Journalists from Russia, China, South Korea, Britain and the United States who had been taken to the site reported a series of explosions there on Thursday afternoon.

“They counted it down — three, two, one,” said Tom Cheshire of Sky News, the British broadcaster, describing one of the detonations, which he witnessed from an observation stand about 500 yards away. “There was a huge explosion, you could feel it. Dust came at you, the heat came at you. It was extremely loud. It blew an observation tower to complete smithereens.”

The Kim regime did not allow in any experts to observe the events, making it difficult to assess what, exactly, they had done. The reporters were unable to immediately send images due to the lack of Internet or cell access in the most inhospitable part of North Korea.

The Punggye-ri testing site consisted of a series of tunnels under the mountains in the northeast of the country, which were accessed through four portals.

The first tunnel to be blown up was through the north portal, the location of the last five nuclear tests. The most recent test, conducted in September, was widely considered to have been a hydrogen explosion.

Since that test, there have been suggestions that Mount Mantap might be suffering from “tired mountain syndrome,” and many experts say that the north portal tunnels are now unusable.

Those tunnels were destroyed with dynamite at about 11 a.m. local time, according to South Korean pool reports from the scene.

However, the west and south portals had never been used and experts said they were still considered viable for future tests. Those tunnels were blown up shortly after 2 p.m. Then barracks, observation towers and other buildings were destroyed.

The east portal, through which North Korea conducted its first nuclear test, in 2006, has been abandoned for more than a decade and is no longer accessible by road. There were no immediate reports on whether North Korea had attempted to completely destroy that tunnel as well.

Restrictions on the journalists taken to the site were tight. As they set out on their 300-mile journey — involving a 12-hour train ride then four hours on a bus, followed by an hour or two hiking through the mountains —  the Russian journalist reported that the  window blinds on the train were secured closed so they couldn’t see out. They were, however, served a 10-course banquet on the train.

The journalists’ gear was closely checked, and Sky News’s Cheshire said that dosimeters were confiscated so they couldn’t check for radiation.

Still, despite the constraints, analysts said Thursday’s ceremony was a move in the right direction, even if it was little more than a gesture.

“This will be highly symbolic and a diplomatic first step,” said Frank Pabian, a former nuclear nonproliferation and satellite imagery expert at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. “But in and of itself, it won’t change anything about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.”

Although no nuclear experts were allowed to attend the event, Pabian, who now writes for the specialist website 38 North, said that officials from organizations like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization would still be able to carry out testing if they were ever granted access to the site.

North Korea has signaled it no longer needs to test its nuclear devices because it has mastered the technology, a claim that is not without credibility given its quantifiable advances over 11 years of testing.

The last nuclear test caused a 6.3-magnitude earthquake at the site and had a yield of as much as 250 kilotons. In comparison, the American nuclear bomb detonated over Hiroshima in 1945 had a yield of about 15 kilotons of energy.

North Korean called that test a “perfect success” and said it had done all the tests it needed to, Kim reiterated last month at a Workers’ Party meeting in Pyongyang.

“The mission of the northern nuclear test ground has thus come to an end,” Kim told his top cadres, according to a state media report. By acquiring this “powerful treasured sword for defending peace,” North Koreans could now “enjoy the most dignified and happiest life in the world,” he said.

North Korea’s Foreign Ministry announced May 12 that it would close the site by collapsing all of the tunnels through explosions, then completely blocking the portals and removing all surrounding buildings, including research institutes and guard posts.

“In parallel with dismantlement of the nuclear test ground, guards and researchers will be withdrawn and the surrounding area of the test ground will be completely closed,” the ministry said in a statement.

This came after a historic summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the end of last month, where Kim agreed to embark on a number of steps to show he was serious about dealing with the United States, the North’s avowed enemy.

He also mentioned a plan to work toward “the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” — a phrase that Trump took to mean Kim wanted to give up his weapons, while most analysts said it was code for a drawn-out process under which both sides would have to make concessions.

As the wrangling over the definition of “denuclearization” continues, both Trump and a senior aide to Kim have raised the prospect of canceling the summit, scheduled for June 12.

The North Korean regime has particularly balked at the Trump administration’s repeated references to Libya, which gave up its nuclear weapons in return for sanctions relief. The Libyan leader, Moammar Gaddafi, was overthrown and brutally killed a few years later, a fate that North Korea views as connected to his decision to relinquish his nuclear program.

The verdict is still out on whether North Korea is seriously prepared to discuss denuclearization with the United States, with many analysts doubting Kim would give up the weapons he considers vital to his legitimacy and for fending off external threats.

After Thursday’s outburst, in which Pyongyang called Vice President Pence “a political dummy” for comparing North Korea to Libya, analysts took to Twitter with sarcastic remarks underlining how far apart the countries remain.

“Yep. North Korea is definitely ready to give up its nukes,” James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote tongue-in-cheek.

 

Source: The Washington Post , Anna Fifield , May 24, 2018. Photo credit to Digitalglobe/Reuters.