Journalists and North Korean officials look around the dismantled site at the Punggye-ri nuclear test facility. Photo: Reuters
Journalists and North Korean officials look around the dismantled site at the Punggye-ri nuclear test facility. Photo: Reuters

Hours before US President Donald Trump’s bombshell announcement on Thursday to cancel a summit with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader followed up on his unilateral commitment to decommission elements of the country’s nuclear test site.

The activity at Punggye-ri, in the country’s mountainous northeast, was observed by 30 international reporters invited from China, Russia, South Korea, the UK and US.

According to members of the South Korean press pool, operations began at 11am and continued until 4.17pm. Early television footage showed chart briefings by North Korean officers, and the destruction, by explosives, of tunnel entrances and accommodation facilities.

CNN reported: “North Korea destroyed at least three nuclear tunnels, observation buildings, a metal foundry and living quarters at its Punggye-ri nuclear test site.”

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However, no expert observers were part of the media delegation that was invited.

Media plays and diplomatic charms

North Korea first said it would dismantle its underground nuclear test site following a meeting of the country’s ruling party in April. The intention was confirmed later in the month when Kim revealed the plan to South Korean President Moon Jae-in during their summit on April 27. While some reports made the assumption that repeated use of the site had left it unable to be used again, Kim told Moon there were, in fact, two intact tunnels at the site that were still operable.

The moves on Thursday were just one component of North Korea’s wider diplomatic charm offensive that started with a conciliatory January 1 broadcast by Kim.

This has included attending the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea; holding summits with Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in; and releasing three American hostages. But the apparent climax of this series of moves – a  hugely anticipated June 12 summit with US President Donald Trump – will now not take place.

Trump announced that he would cancel the summit just hours after the explosions detonated at Punggye-ri.

Can the site still be used?

The Punggye-ri site has been the subject of widespread speculation. According to a May 23 report by the specialist site monitoring activity in North Korea 38 North, the complex had four separate tunnel systems, one of which was abandoned due to contamination shortly after the first nuclear test in 2006.

The other five tests were conducted at the same portal and, according to 38 North, there are two separate tunnel systems originating at what has been called the North Portal. The other portals also contain multiple drifts ending in fish-hooks – self-sealing closures at the ending of the emplacement points.

Expert analysis tends to confirm Kim’s assertion that the site – at least prior to Thursday’s explosions – had not been too seriously damaged for further use.

38 North reported on April 23: “There is no basis to conclude that the Punggye-ri nuclear test site is no longer viable for future nuclear testing. There remain two portal areas located in more pristine competent rock that can be used for future tests if Pyongyang were to give the order. Whether that will stay an option will depend on reaching verifiable agreements that build on Pyongyang’s pledge to shut down the facility.”

Even though North Korea appears to have sealed tunnels entrances, it would not require a massive effort to reopen those that have remained pristine, should Pyongyang at some time in the future decide to carry out more tests.

“How completely they destroy the tunnels will determine how soon they could be reopened,” an expert, who was not part of the delegation at the site, told Asia Times. “You do realize that they could use other tunnels, with suitable modifications, elsewhere should they desire to do so.”

North Korea is a deeply dug-in nation with enormous expertize in tunneling and the necessary human resources required to do the work. The most formidable of its long-range artillery pieces lurk in casements dug into the rear slopes of mountains just north of the DMZ and in range of Seoul, and North Korea has famously entrenched entire airbases inside mountains.

Good PR but not necessarily the end

The general zig-zag tunnel layout with a fishhook for self-sealing at Punggye-ri is consistent with some earlier US test sites, as well as the French tests in Algeria in the early 1960s, and with the Pakistani underground test in 1998.

North Korea has carried out six nuclear tests — in October 2006, May 2009, February 2013, January 2016, September 2016 and September 2017. India, another Asian nuclear power, has carried out the same number of nuclear tests as North Korea: the first in May 1974, followed by five more in May 1998. Pakistan responded the same month, by carrying out an equal number of atomic explosions.

This all indicates that North Korea no longer needs the site, and Friday’s activities were largely symbolic. Moreover, Pyongyang has said that its program to test nuclear weapons “is complete,” indicating that further detonations are unnecessary.

According to a briefing given to Asia Times in Panmunjeom by an officer of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission, the first North Korean atomic arms test in 2006 caused seismic activity of 4.3 on the Richter scale and delivered 0.48 kilotons of explosive force. Its last test, in 2017, generated 6.3 points on the Richter scale with a whopping yield of 120 kilotons. By comparison, the 1945 bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, detonated with 15 kilotons of force.

And while Friday’s spectacle at Punggye-ri made good public relations, many pundits have compared it to the televised destruction of the 2008 demolition of the cooling tower at North Korea’s flagship Yongbyon nuclear complex. That move did not eventually translate into an end to the country’s nuclear weapons programs.