A satellite mage of the Punggyeri Nuclear Test Site. Photo: Reuters

North Korea has halved the number of soldiers guarding its Punggyeri nuclear test site – in a possible sign that it hopes for an imminent rapprochement with US, according to well-placed sources.

The Asahi Shimbun quotes sources as saying the decision to downsize the garrison may reflect anticipation in Pyongyang that a planned meeting in May between US President Donald Trump and leader Kim Jong-un will lead to a deal that results in North Korea’s denuclearization in exchange for full bilateral relations, economic aid and security guarantees.

At the same time, Asahi’s sources said it wouldn’t be hard to resume operations at Punggyeri if the talks fail. But the latest move by North Korea could also be interpreted as a step towards eventually closing the facility.

“Sources said the order was issued early this month to the 19th regiment that is deployed in and around the test site. Transfer orders were issued to two of the four battalions that have been in charge of digging tunnels at the site for underground nuclear tests,” the Japanese newspaper reported.

The four battalions are said have a combined strength of about 1,000.

Two battalions remain in readiness at the test site, along with what Asahi said was about 150 members of an engineering corps battalion and 70 or so members of a military company in charge of security.

If a pact is struck at the Trump-Kim summit to denuclearize North Korea, the remaining troops at Punggyeri could be transferred and the site closed, the sources said.

Such a move would echo past moves by North Korea. In June 2008, during the Bush administration, North Korea destroyed a cooling tower for a nuclear reactor at a nuclear-related facility at Yongbyon as a way to demonstrate Pyongyang was adhering to an international agreement on denuclearization.

President George W. Bush announced in response at the time that Washington was dropping North Korea from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, and issued a proclamation lifting some sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act.

Conditions attached
The North is attaching conditions in its latest talks with the US. The sources said North Korea would only go ahead with the concessions based on the steps Washington takes in response to demands from Pyongyang.

The sources also provided insights into Pyongyang’s thinking on denuclearization.

“During meetings at the highest leadership levels within North Korea, it was explained that nuclear tests are no longer a necessity as the completion of such weapons is now a fait accompli,” the sources told the newspaper. “It was also explained that even if a denuclearization agreement was reached, it would take at least a decade to destroy the nation’s nuclear arsenal.”

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