S Korean military: N Korea preparing nuke site closure

SEOUL (AP) – North Korea is moving ahead with plans to close its nuclear test site next week, South Korea’s military said yesterday, an assessment backed by US researchers who say satellite images show the North has begun dismantling facilities at the site.

The site’s closure would set up next month’s historic summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump, which is shaping up to be a crucial moment in the global diplomatic push to resolve the nuclear standoff with the North. Still, analysts say the closure wouldn’t represent a material step toward full denuclearisation.

Roh Jae-cheon, spokesman for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the South’s military has seen signs that the North is conducting “preparatory work” so that it can carry out its plans to shut down its northeastern testing ground. He did not specify what the military has seen.

But an analysis by 38 North, a North Korea-focussed US website, said commercial imagery taken last week shows that several operational support buildings have been razed and rails for mining carts have apparently been removed. The site has been used for each of North Korea’s six underground nuclear test explosions.

“Commercial satellite imagery from May 7 provided the first definitive evidence that dismantlement of the test site was already well underway,” the website wrote.

A demonstrator holds a sign for peace near the US Embassy in Seoul, South Korea yesterday. – AP

North Korea’s Foreign Ministry announced last Saturday that it will dismantle the test site between May 23 and 25. To provide transparency, the ministry said journalists from South Korea, the United States, China, Russia and Britain will be invited to observe the destruction of tunnels and the removal of observation and research facilities at the site.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry said it was informed by the North yesterday that eight South Korean journalists will be invited. The North did not reveal the number of spots it will give to non-Korean journalists, according to the ministry. The eight South Korean journalists – four each from a wire agency and a broadcaster that have yet to be determined – will take a chartered flight from Beijing to the North Korean coastal town of Wonsan on May 22, the ministry said. The reporters will then be transported by a chartered train to the nuclear test site in Punggye-ri.

Kim has already declared his nuclear weapons and missile programme as finished and the nuclear testing site’s mission as completed. Some analysts question whether the dismantling of the site is aimed at destroying evidence.

While South Korea’s presidential office had said that Kim told South Korean President Moon Jae-in during their summit last month that international experts will be invited to witness the closure, the North’s Foreign Ministry statement last Saturday did not include any references to allowing experts at the site.

The two Koreas will hold a high-level meeting today at a border truce village to discuss setting up military and Red Cross talks aimed at reducing border tensions and restarting reunions between families separated by the Korean War.