Commercial satellite imagery indicates North Korea has begun dismantling its Punggye-ri nuclear test site.
According to analysts at U.S.-based watchdog group 38North, photograph’s taken above the site on May 7 provide “the first definitive evidence that dismantlement of the test site was already well underway.”
“Several key operational support buildings, located just outside the North, West and South Portals, have been razed since our last analysis,” 38North writes. “Some of the rails for the mining carts, which had led from the tunnels to their respective spoil piles, have apparently been removed.”
— 38 North (@38NorthNK) May 14, 2018
News of the site’s condition follows Saturday’s announcement by state-run media outlet Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) that foreign journalists would be invited next week to witness Punggye-ri’s full closure.
KCNA stated that the site would be permanently disabled by “collapsing all of its tunnels with explosions, blocking its entrances, and removing all observation facilities, research buildings and security posts.”
The site’s shuttering would fulfill a promise made by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who vowed to close the Punggye-ri testing grounds ahead of his summit with U.S. President Donald Trump next month.
Although reports claimed the site had become unusable after North Korea’s test last year of a suspected thermonuclear weapon, a statement from Kim, as well as satellite imagery, suggested two tunnels at Mt. Mantap were still viable.
While some see North Korea’s decision purely as a concession, Kim was adamant in stating that the testing site had become unnecessary due to Pyongyang achieving a credible nuclear deterrent.
The move by Kim, some nuclear experts suspect, could be an attempt to sanitize the site before international experts are able to examine the area for potential clues about the country’s nuclear capability.
Analysts have also pointed to North Korea’s nearly identical gesture in 2008 when it invited international media outlets to witness the demolition of a cooling tower at the Yongbyon nuclear plant as part of a pledge to limit its nuclear program.
Commercial satellite imagery from this month also shows a new structure in Pyongsong linked to the production of launchers for the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The photographs suggest that although North Korea may have agreed to stop testing its missiles and nukes, it has yet to state whether it intends to stop building them.
In an attempt to confirm North Korea’s authenticity, the U.S. has reportedly ordered Pyongyang to hand over five of its nuclear weapons to France ahead of the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore on June 12.