The president of South Korea’s office says that North Korea has agreed to close down its infamous Punggye-ri nuclear weapons testing site in Kilju County by May, CNN reported on the weekend, and says it may invite international experts to verify the location has been closed.
Kim also spoke cautiously of abandoning the country’s nuclear arsenal if the US makes a pledge not to invade the country, the New York Times added, though was less specific on this topic.
According to CNN, news of the promises to close the test site comes after a Friday summit in which North Korean leader Kim Jong Un told South Korean President Moon Jae-in, “The United States, though inherently hostile to North Korea, will get to know once our talk begins that I am not the kind of person who will use nuclear weapons against the South or the United States across the Pacific.”
“There is no reason for us to possess nuclear weapons,” Kim is reported to have added, “…If mutual trust with the United States is built through frequent meetings from now on, and an end to the war and non-aggression are promised.”
Little is known about the Punggye-ri facility but what can be obtained from satellite imagery, per the Straits Times. Kim had previously said that the test site had already completed its mission, though suspicion to closure is actually due to widespread reports not just tunnels, but the actual mountain on top of the Punggye-ri test site has collapsed.
According to the Associated Press, Chinese scientists have presented evidence that four earthquakes following North Korea’s September 3rd, 2017 detonation of an estimated 100-kiloton nuclear weapon caused parts of the mountain to cave in, and it is possible that radioactive material could leak from the resulting cracks.
“In view of the research finding that the North Korea nuclear test site at Mantapsan has collapsed, it is necessary to continue to monitor any leakage of radioactive materials that may have been caused by the collapse,” the scientists wrote.
Punggye-ri was reported to have experienced tunnel collapses which may have killed hundreds of workers around the same time, so even if the mountain has not collapsed, it is possible the tests left the site partially destroyed. The facility is the only known North Korean nuclear testing grounds, and the cash-strapped government may not have the funds to repair it.
According to CNN, Kim shot down the rumours of a collapse:
In the comments released by Moon’s office on Sunday, Kim also refuted claims by Chinese scientists earlier in the week that parts of the site had been so badly damaged by previous explosions that it may now be unusable.
“Some claim we are closing down an unusable test site, but if they come and see, they will understand that there are two bigger tunnels than the existing test facilities and that they are in a very good condition,” Kim said, according to Yoon.
It’s also possible that North Korea believes it has assembled a nuclear arsenal large and powerful enough to achieve its strategic goals, and thus the status of Punggye-ri is more or less irrelevant. US intelligence agencies significantly underestimated how quickly Kim’s government could move to secure new nuclear technology, according to the Times. While some specifics such as whether its intercontinental ballistic missiles actually work as intended or it has successfully developed nuclear warheads is unclear, experts now generally agree it is only a matter of time – and not much of it – before North Korea solves both problems, if it hasn’t already.
The US has agreed to negotiate with Kim’s government, though newly sworn in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo officially says Donald Trump’s administration is only “cautiously optimistic” and will only accept “irreversible” denuclearization amid talks, per the Wall Street Journal.
Moon’s office also said that during the meeting, Kim said Pyongyang would reverse a decision made years ago and change its time zone by a half an hour to align with Seoul’s, CNN added.