North Korea has begun dismantling the country’s only known nuclear test site, according to satellite photos, following through on a promise made by leader Kim Jong-un ahead of his meeting with Donald Trump.
The pictures, taken on 7 May, are “the first definitive evidence that dismantlement of the test site was already well underway”, according to a blog post by 38 North, a website run by former US diplomats.
The Punggye-ri site in the northeast of the country was used for all of the North’s six nuclear tests and lies deep within mountains. Kim pledged to close the complex after his historic meeting with South Korean president Moon Jae-in, saying North Korea no longer needed the site.
There were reports the site had collapsed and was unusable, but Kim himself reportedly dismissed those claims, saying “we have two more tunnels that are bigger than the existing ones and that they are in good condition”. North Korea has said it will dismantle its nuclear bomb test site later this month in order to uphold its pledge to cease tests.
The two countries will hold high-level talks on Wednesday to discuss steps needed to uphold the pledge to denuclearise the Korean peninsula and formally end the Korean War.
The new images show key buildings and several smaller sheds have been torn down and a rail line connecting one of the entrances had been removed. Excavation of a new tunnel appears to have stopped in March.
“This activity along with the rail removal could be further evidence of an operational shut down,” according to 38 North.
North Korea’s plan to close the site has been welcomed by Washington, Seoul and the UN secretary general.
“I would imagine that the plan is to sanitize the site to remove any sensitive information about the state of North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, then invite in the journalists and experts to confirm that, yes, the site is now a ghost-town,” Jeffrey Lewis and David Schmerler, both arms control experts, wrote in a separate blog post analysis satellite imagery.
North Korea’s foreign ministry has said it will invite foreign journalist to witness the decommissioning of the site at Punggye-ri. One new structure could be a camera position to record the closure of the West Portal, 38 North said.
“Dismantlement of the nuclear test ground will be done in the following sequence-making all tunnels of the test ground collapse by explosion; completely blocking entries; removing all observation facilities, research institutes and structures of guard units on the ground,” the ministry said in a statement released through the state run Korean Central News Agency.
Dialogue brokered by South Korea has seen US-North Korea relations go from trading personal insults and threats of war last year to a summit between Kim and Trump which will be held in Singapore on 12 June.
Washington is seeking the “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation” of the North and stresses that verification will be key.
But sceptics warn that Pyongyang has yet to make any public commitment to give up its arsenal, which includes missiles capable of reaching the United States.