The government of North Korea has set official dates to decommission its sole known nuclear test site, specifically between the dates of May 23rd and 25th, Reuters reported the country’s state media as saying on Saturday.
According to the report, North Korea says it will effectively destroy the entire Punggye-ri facility, preventing its future use in nuclear tests without major renovations—and it’s promising that there will be at least some transparency in the process:
The official Korean Central New Agency said dismantlement of the Punggye-ri nuclear test ground would involve collapsing all of its tunnels with explosions, blocking its entrances, and removing all observation facilities, research buildings and security posts.
“The Nuclear Weapon Institute and other concerned institutions are taking technical measures for dismantling the northern nuclear test ground … in order to ensure transparency of discontinuance of the nuclear test,” KCNA said.
The demolition of the test site could be fairly described as a major advancement towards lowered tensions between North Korea on the one side and South Korea and its many allies on the other, which have remained consistently high since the Korean War resulted not in a true peace but a continued armistice dating to 1953. It comes not long after US President Donald Trump committed to a June 12th summit with none other than Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, though South Koreans themselves appear to be giving the lion’s share of the credit to their President Moon Jae-in, whose popularity ratings have skyrocketed after he spearheaded the attempt to bolster relations.
There’s reason to be somewhat cautious or even suspicious. Though the recent shows of mutual deescalation are unprecedented, there’s always the risk that negotiations could fail due to intransigence on either side—and even in a best-case scenario, the odds could be long that the players involved can commit to a long-term deal. For example, North Korea paused missile tests from 1999 to 2006, only to restart them, and it was only a few months ago that Trump was threatening to level the whole country with the US military’s nuclear arsenal.
Moreover, Chinese scientists have already concluded that the site in question is worthless after satellite imagery suggested its overlaying 7,200 peak, Mount Mantap, appears to have experienced partial collapse during testing. Subsequent tunnel collapses are rumored to have killed hundreds of workers, which North Korea’s government may have deemed irreplaceable losses. Further damage to Punggye-ri could release radioactive dust trapped in the rubble and cause a regional catastrophe.
So in other words, it’s possible North Korean officials are coming to the table because they have nothing to lose from giving up the test site. Internally, Quartz reported, state media has been fostering the impression the negotiations are only possible because North Korea already has missiles and nuclear weapons, and they’re probably not all that interested in surrendering them. Finally, Reuters noted North Korea said it would welcome international journalists to view the destruction of the test site, but they have not yet done the same for international experts who could verify the facility was properly destroyed.
Still, according to Reuters, a little bit of optimism isn’t unreasonable, even if Punggye-ri’s demise would not signal the end of North Korean capabilities. Jeffrey Lewis of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies told the news agency Punggye-ri’s demolition would be a “good confidence building measure,” while former Los Alamos National Laboratory director Siegfried Hecker said it would be a “big and positive step.”