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Pyongyang to scrap nuclear site

Facility will be publicly destroyed between May 23 and 25
May 14,2018
North Korea announced Saturday it would invite international journalists to cover the dismantling of its northern nuclear test site between May 23 and 25, adding that its authorities were currently taking “technical measures” to carry out the process.

The announcement, relayed by the North’s Foreign Affairs Ministry and carried in a report from the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), came three weeks after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un declared that the Punggye-ri nuclear test site would be torn down because the regime felt it needless to carry out any further tests when it has already mastered the program.

But Kim, who made the remarks during a plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party on April 20, a week before his summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, did not say he would destroy his nuclear stockpile.

Punggye-ri is North Korea’s only known nuclear test ground, where it hosted all of the country’s six nuclear experiments from October 2006 to September 2017 in the mountainous terrain of Kilju County, North Hamgyong Province, on the northeastern side of the country. Four tests have been conducted since Kim rose to power in December 2011, and the test site lies about 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of the border with China.

North Korea had remained silent on its schedule to shut down Punggye-ri since April 27, when Kim told Moon during the summit that he would dismantle the test site in May and invite American and South Korean experts and journalists to watch the demolition, according to a Blue House official who disclosed the conversation with local reporters. South Korean authorities initially thought the North would carry out the process sometime last week, leaving officials to wonder whether the delay was due to technical reasons or a political motive.

According to an English version of the KCNA report on Saturday, North Korea’s Nuclear Weapon Institute and “other concerned institutions” were said to be undertaking technical steps for dismantling Punggye-ri in order to “ensure transparency of discontinuance” of any additional nuclear tests.

The report did not explain what technical measures the North is implementing, but a ceremony showing the following procedures will take place between May 23 and 25 depending on weather conditions: all tunnels at the test ground will be collapsed by an “explosion”; the entrances to the tunnels will be blocked; all observation facilities will be removed; and all research institutes and guard towers will be removed.

Guards and researchers will be withdrawn and the area surrounding the test ground will be “completely closed,” the report read.

In order to guarantee transparency, the North said it would invite foreign journalists to cover the event. Due to the “small space of the test ground,” only journalists from China, Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom and South Korea will be invited. Japan is the only country among the six-party members that has not been invited, though the KCNA report did not provide any reason for the exclusion.

The article also didn’t mention why experts weren’t invited, despite Kim Jong-un’s earlier statement to his political aides and President Moon that they would be.

All foreign journalists will be flown into North Korea on a charter flight from Beijing to Wonsan, in North Korea’s southeastern Kangwon Province. Accommodation will be provided in Wonsan, as well as a press center from which journalists will be able to transmit their articles. A special train will be arranged to take the reporters from Wonsan to Punggye-ri, while “appropriate conveniences” will be provided along the way.

The North stressed that it would promote “close contact and dialogue” with neighboring countries and the international society so as to safeguard peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and across the world.

Hours after the North’s announcement was made, Trump tweeted: “North Korea has announced that they will dismantle Nuclear Test Site this month, ahead of the big Summit Meeting on June 12th. Thank you, a very smart and gracious gesture!” Trump was referring to his summit with Kim, planned to be held on June 12 in Singapore at an undisclosed location. Trump will hold another summit with Moon on May 22 in Washington, shortly before Pyongyang said it would demolish Punggye-ri.

The Blue House “welcomed” the North’s announcement during a press briefing on Sunday, saying it was an “expression of will” that it would “implement its promise during the South-North summit in actions, not words.”

Blue House spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom said Seoul looked forward to seeing Kim and Trump building faith in each other before meeting in person on June 12.

A Blue House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said North Korea’s announcement wasn’t to be dealt with lightly because Punggye-ri was practically the only site it could ever conduct a nuclear experiment, and dismantling it would mean it would at least refrain from developing any nuclear weapons in the future. The demolition, added the official, would come even as the North needs to carry out additional nuclear experiments in order to test its ability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon to be loaded onto an intercontinental ballistic missile.

On why Japanese journalists weren’t invited to the demolition ceremony, the Blue House source predicted that it was probably because Pyongyang has yet to hold any official dialogue with Tokyo. On the inclusion of the United Kingdom, it could be that the North saw the country as a representative of the European Union. In June 2008, North Korea allowed reporters from South Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the United States to cover the demolition of a cooling tower at the Yongbyon nuclear research complex in North Pyongan Province.

North Korea’s state-run media repeated the Punggye-ri announcement throughout Sunday via its newspaper, Rodong Sinmun; radio station, Korean Central Broadcasting Station; and television station, Korean Central Television.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]