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All eyes now on Punggye-ri site

May 08,2018
An inspection of North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site will be the first test of Kim Jong-un’s willingness to give up his nuclear weapons, experts say, but how far the mercurial leader will open up to international inspectors is anyone’s guess.

A week before he met South Korean President Moon Jae-in for a summit, Kim told his top political aides that North Korea’s northern nuclear test site would be “dismantled” in order to “transparently guarantee the discontinuance” of any further nuclear experiment, remarks that were carried through the regime’s official mouthpiece, the Korean Central News Agency, the next day.

Kim went a step further during the April 27 summit when he told the South Korean president that he would shut down the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in May and invite American and South Korean experts and journalists to watch the demolition, according to the Blue House.

A South Korean government official told the JoongAng Ilbo Monday that local authorities initially assumed Pyongyang would start dismantling Punggye-ri this coming Thursday or Friday, but it appears the process was being delayed because the regime wasn’t sharing its schedule with Seoul. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the government was trying to figure out whether the delay was due to a technical reason or a political motive.

Analysts say that North Korea’s summit with the United States, for which a date and venue have yet to be announced, will have to lay out concrete steps for stripping the North of its nuclear stockpile in order for international society to gain the slightest trust that Kim is serious about denuclearizing, something that the inter-Korean summit failed to do.

Another South Korean government official said Washington saw Pyongyang’s tearing down of the nuclear test site as an early litmus test of its willingness to denuclearize.

But the North has not even specified how it would invite outside inspectors to watch its demolition of Punggye-ri. South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha alluded to the possibility that the Blue House might not even know when she told foreign ambassadors last Thursday during a briefing on the inter-Korean summit that Seoul will have to discuss with Pyongyang the details. Lee Do-hoon, the ministry’s top envoy on denuclearization talks, is planning to travel to the United States this week.

A complete inspection of Punggye-ri would be the most extensive inspection campaign in the history of nuclear disarmament, the New York Times analyzed this week, one that requires delving into a national project stretching back more than half a century.

An international law expert in Seoul who studied North Korean human rights issues and sanctions called Punggye-ri a “crime scene,” stressing that the nuclear test site should be “preserved.”

“North Korea flagrantly violated United Nations Security Council resolutions at that very location, illegally carrying out six nuclear tests,” said the source. Inspecting the venue will be a rare opportunity to unearth information on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and technology, he said.

“Watching the place get torn down is simply applauding North Korea’s destruction of evidence,” said the analyst.

North Korea has a long track record of reneging on denuclearization promises and concealing its production of plutonium and uranium, key materials for nuclear weapons. A local nuclear scientist said the inspection of Punggye-ri might offer clues to just how much plutonium the regime has produced so far.

“If North Korea takes down the Punggye-ri nuclear test site before international inspectors evaluate the country’s nuclear stocks, there’s no way to verify whether it fabricated its past six experiments,” the scientist said.

BY YOO JEE-HYE, JEONG YONG-SOO AND LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]