What you need to know about North Korea dismantling its nuclear test site

What you need to know about North Korea dismantling its nuclear test site

North Korea has vowed this week to dismantle their nuclear testing facility at Punggye-ri in front of the world’s media, the latest sign of goodwill in the rapidly developing detente on the Korean Peninsula.

North Korean news agency KCNA previously announced that foreign media would be invited to cover the event to show the process in a “transparent manner.”

Though in the last week there have been some heated threats from North Korean officials to pull out of the upcoming June 12 summit with President Donald Trump, it appears that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is still going ahead with closing down his nuclear testing facility.

Kim announced in April that he no longer needed to conduct nuclear tests because the country had achieved its “nuclear weaponization.”


The nuclear testing site near the village of Punggye-ri in the northeast of the country has been the site of all six North Korean underground nuclear tests from 2006 until the most recent one on Sept. 3, 2017.

The facility is built into the granite base of Mount Mantap, roughly 100 miles from North Korea’s border with China and Mount Paektu, an active volcano and the country’s sacred mountain.

This April 20, 2018, satellite image provided by DigitalGlobe shows the nuclear test site in Punggye-ri, North Korea. Foreign journalists will journey into the mountains of North Korea this week to observe the closing of the country’s nuclear test siThe Associated Press
This April 20, 2018, satellite image provided by DigitalGlobe shows the nuclear test site in Punggye-ri, North Korea. Foreign journalists will journey into the mountains of North Korea this week to observe the closing of the country’s nuclear test si

Condition of the site

The hydrogen bomb that North Korea tested in September 2017 was estimated to be at least 10 times more powerful than the one the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, at the end of World War II in 1945. Upon detonation it yielded a 6.3-magnitude earthquake followed by a smaller 4.6-magnitude earthquake followed several minutes later. Both the U.S. Geological Survey and the China Earthquake Networks Center described the second event as a possible “collapse” of the site. Two aftershocks were detected in the area as late as December 2017 in a region without a history of natural seismic activity.

Until this week, the true condition of the site was unclear because of the restricted access to Punngye-ri. Any analysis had to be done via satellite photographs.

In April, a Chinese academic study by researchers at the University of Science and Technology of China suggested that “near vertical on-site collapse toward the nuclear test center” occurred after the initial blast and that the event may have rendered the site unstable for further tests. The study called for monitoring for potential radiation leakage.

PHOTO: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in meet in the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea, April 27, 2018.
SLIDESHOW: North and South Korea unite at historic summit


According to South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s spokesperson Yoon Young-chan, however, Kim told Moon at their April 27 inter-Korean Summit that the site had new tunnels that were “in very good condition.”

Analysts at the U.S.-based North Korea-monitoring website 38 North appeared to back up Kim’s claim in a April 30 report saying they see evidence that “the two mountainous areas accessible by the South and West Portals remain viable, and could support future underground nuclear testing if there were to be a political decision to do so.”

What we may see this week

On May 12, North Korean state media said the dismantlement process will involve “collapsing all of its tunnels with explosions, blocking its entrances, and removing all observation facilities, research buildings and security posts.”

This satellite image released and notated by Airbus Defense & Space and 38 North on March 30, 2018, shows the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in North Korea.AP
This satellite image released and notated by Airbus Defense & Space and 38 North on March 30, 2018, shows the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in North Korea.

Two 38 North reported last week that in the beginning of May the North Koreans began taking down buildings and infrastructure around the testing facility and appear to have built an observation platform for the visiting media this week.

Can the process be reversed?

If the political winds change once more, the collapsed tunnels could easily be re-excavated.

Ankit Panda of Asia-Pacific affairs magazine The Diplomat reported that a U.S. intelligence assessment determined it would take mere “weeks to months” for Pyongyang to reverse course.

What if North Korea Makes an Offer Trump Can’t Refuse?

What if North Korea Makes an Offer Trump Can’t Refuse?

North Korea has just reminded the United States that it is intent on negotiating with the United States, not accepting an administration diktat, especially one explicitly modeled after the Libya deal, which ultimately ended in the gruesome death of Muammar el-Qaddafi, who agreed to its terms.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently visited Pyongyang again and made Kim Jong-un an offer he hoped the North Korean supreme leader could not reject: abandon nuclear weapons and the North can “have all the opportunities your people so richly deserve.” But the Trump administration should be careful what it asks for. What if Kim said, “Yes, here are my nukes. Now where are my benefits?”

The summit between Kim and President Donald Trump is set but suddenly in doubt. Secretary Pompeo went to Pyongyang to finalize the details and bring home three imprisoned Americans. While there he made a pitch for North Korean disarmament. It sounded like a good deal, probably like the similar pitch to Qaddafi sounded in 2003.

Although most Korea-watchers expected an ever-so polite no from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, however disguised, at the summit rather than ahead of time, the most challenging answer would be a fulsome yes.

No one outside of Pyongyang knows the extent of North Korea’s nuclear program. Estimates of the number of weapons range from fifteen to sixty. Nor do American officials know where the weapons are located.

The so-called Children’s Palace is a venue for a variety of kid’s activities, and a must-stop spot for foreign visitors. I was taken there on both of my trips to North Korea, most recently last June. Dominating the building’s large open area is a model missile. At least, I assumed it was a model. The North might be hiding its weapons in plain view. How better to fool the Americans?

After the summit’s usual opening pleasantries have been exchanged, imagine Kim announcing that he sees no reason why two decisive men of action cannot quickly reach an agreement. To demonstrate his commitment to good relations with America he already released three U.S. citizens even though they had violated North Korean law. To further prove his good faith, he explains, at that very moment four North Korean nukes are on trucks just north of Panmunjom, ready for America to take if a deal is reached.

He then promises to deliver his nation’s remaining baker’s dozen weapons—sadly, he explains, Pyongyang was unable to develop as many nukes as the imperialistic foreigners imagined—in a similar fashion as the United States fulfills Secretary Pompeo’s promises and a bit more. Kim then makes a few simple requests: diplomatic recognition, peace treaty, sanctions end, economic aid, entry into multilateral development banks, military exercises terminated, U.S. troop levels reduced.

Of course, Kim continues, international inspectors would be free to visit, with all the usual caveats. To ensure parity, international inspections also would verify that no American nuclear weapons remain in South Korea. The two leaders’ minions can work out the details, Kim observes. For instance, a couple more nukes might be delivered after diplomatic relations are established, additional bombs could be turned over when sanctions are lifted, and so on. Now, with everything decided, time to break out the cognac, hold hands, and invite in the photographers.

How would President Trump respond?

Without knowing what weapons the North possessed, Washington would be flying blind. There would be widespread suspicion that the DPRK had more warheads than Kim said. But then what?

Declare that he is lying and refuse his proposal? Reject the proffered nukes? Admit that the president’s willingness to go to the summit was a mistake? This approach seems like a bad idea on many levels, not the least that it would be a very bad public-relations plan.

Insist on intrusive inspections first? Refuse to provide any benefits in the meantime, despite a dramatic, and positive, offer? What if inspectors can’t find any additional nukes, only those helpfully piled together by the authorities in a central location? After all, Kim might be telling the truth. And if not, then there are a lot of underground bunkers dug into a lot of mountains in the North. Even if errant documents or other evidence is discovered, how to resolve possible discrepancies?

If disagreement persists, then what? Blow up negotiations after the supreme leader offered everything Washington asked for? Explain to South Koreans why the United States was plunging the Korean peninsula back into a cold war? Tell the American people that war was back on the table, even absent hard proof that Kim was hiding much of his nuclear arsenal?

The easier path certainly would be for the United States to accept Kim’s offer as sufficient. Claiming denuclearization would allow the president’s partisans to continue to shout “Nobel!” Diminishing the North’s arsenal while foreclosing future developments would be a genuine achievement. Especially if the DPRK took other steps, such as reducing conventional forces, that suggested it was abandoning its own “hostile policy” toward the United States and South Korea. Surely Trump would recognize a win-win deal, at least in terms of politics.

Indeed, cheating might be inevitable given the DPRK’s security concerns. Frankly, Kim would be a fool to trust the United States after military intervention against Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. After President Trump appointed aides who urged regime change in North Korea and other nations. After Washington refused to protect Ukraine once it gave up its nukes. After the administration tossed out the nuclear agreement with Iran and demanded new restrictions as well as concessions in other areas. Why should Kim believe anything Washington says to him about accepting his government and living in peace?


North Korea’s Secret Army: How Operatives Abroad Aid the Regime

North Korea’s Secret Army: How Operatives Abroad Aid the Regime

KUALA LUMPUR—Ri Jong Chol, a slight man in his mid-40s, led what appeared the routine life of a businessman. He lived in an apartment complex with a pool and gym, a family man who took his wife and two children bowling.

Mr. Ri’s computers and phones, seized last year by Malaysia authorities, reveal much more. He was a North Korean operative, one of hundreds living abroad who U.S. and United Nations investigators say help the regime skirt sanctions by generating cash and sourcing goods.

South Korea, US to work closely on summit after Pyongyang’s about-face

South Korea, US to work closely on summit after Pyongyang’s about-face

Moon and Trump are set to meet on Tuesday in Washington before North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meets with Trump on June 12 in Singapore.

Although a historic inter-Korean summit in late April raised hopes of reconciliation, North Korea showed a dramatic change in tone in recent days.

North Korea’s chief negotiator Ri Son Gwon said on Thursday it would not hold talks with South Korea unless their demands were met, taking issue with the U.S.-South Korean air combat drills known as Max Thunder. It came a day after it threatened to pull out of the summit with the United States.

Further dampening the mood, a spokesman for North Korea’s Red Cross Society demanded on Saturday that South Korea’s government should send North Korean female restaurant workers back to their home “without delay” to show the will to improve the inter-Korean ties, the North’s Korea Central News agency said.

A dozen North Korean restaurant workers came to South Korea in 2016 from China, and North Korea had urged to send them back claiming they were abducted by the South, even though the South has said the 12 workers decided to defect of their own free will.

Lee Dong-bok, a researcher at New Asia Research Institution, said part of the reason for the North’s demands of the repatriation is to divide South Korea’s public opinion over the 12 workers.

“It is also to pressure the Moon government to agree to its demand so that South Korea can keep up the momentum for the North Korea-U.S. summit meeting,” Lee said.

How North Korea successfully navigates sanctions

How North Korea successfully navigates sanctions

If diplomacy with North Korea fails at the summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, the regime already has a system in place to navigate international pressure, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The big picture: The regime has hundreds of operatives around the world, helping the country side-step sanctions, per the Journal. The various schemes carried out by the operatives generated “hundreds of millions a dollars a year in cash and goods.” A former Asia diplomat at the State Department, Daniel Russel, told WSJ: “North Korea has an army of these people.”