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North Korea’s plan to close its nuclear test site isn’t denuclearization

“It'll make for great TV. People will be cheering, they'll be clapping. It'll be great. But it doesn't actually solve the hard problems that will come after.”

In the summer of 2008, with TV cameras rolling, North Korea blew up a cooling tower at the Yongbyon nuclear complex — a goodwill gesture intended to show the world it was serious about striking a nuclear deal. A decade later, history is poised to repeat itself.

North Korea has invited foreign journalists to observe the dismantling of Punggye-ri, the remote mountain site where six nuclear bombs have been tested in underground tunnels. The demolition, slated to occur May 23-25 depending on weather conditions, will involve “collapse by explosion” of the test tunnels.


“It'll make for great TV. But it doesn't actually solve the hard problems that will come after."

Much has changed over the past 10 years, but experts who study North Korea and its nuclear program warn that the plan for the nuclear test site and the 2008 cooling tower demolition are eerily similar: North Korea is once again offering a U.S. president something to brag about while not actually giving anything up.

“North Korea's plan to demolish the tunnels in front of journalists is a perfect, made-for-TV moment, exactly like demolishing the cooling tower at Yongbyon was in 2008,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia nonproliferation program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. “It'll make for great TV. People will be cheering, they'll be clapping. It'll be great. But it doesn't actually solve the hard problems that will come after — the hard problems that destroyed the effort in 2008 to get a deal.”

What happens next depends on President Donald Trump’s negotiating skills. Trump has agreed to meet the 34-year-old Kim in Singapore on June 12, though he warned Tuesday there’s “a very substantial chance that it won’t work out.” And one thing is clear: Trump’s goal is far more ambitious than his predecessors. In 2008, the U.S was negotiating to prevent further nuclear development. Today, Trump’s team seeks complete and “irreversible denuclearization.” But the term means different things to the opposing sides, and could prove an insurmountable obstacle to any deal. North Korea, for its part, has made it clear that unconditional surrender of nuclear weapons is a nonstarter.


Read: How Kim Jong Un could hide North Korea’s nukes from Trump

We know how it went last time: The Bush administration took a hard line in demanding intrusive inspections and other measures that North Korea ultimately refused to accept. When the Six-Party Talks finally collapsed, North Korea went on to secretly build centrifuges to enrich uranium and proceeded to test five nuclear bombs, each bigger than the one before, at the site it now promises to mothball. The last bomb was estimated to be about 10 times the size of the ones that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Today, the concern is that the nuclear-site dismantling is an equally hollow gesture.

“Are they just blowing the portal, the entrance, or are they blowing the entire tunnel itself?”

To start, experts suspect the damage to the tunnels may only be cosmetic, since the site includes three vast underground tunnel complexes that snake beneath three separate mountains.

“Are they just blowing the portal, the entrance, or are they blowing the entire tunnel itself?” asked Joe Bermudez, an analyst at 38 North. “If you just blow the portal, you leave the tunnel intact, and if you want at a later date, you can go back in and open it up without too much difficulty.”

And even if the Punggye-ri site is permanently kaput, Bermudez and Lewis both noted that North Korea has a healthy mining industry and no shortage of mountains that could serve as back-up test sites should they feel the need to blow up another bomb.


Read: WTF happens now with North Korea?

Bermudez said there are “hundreds” of suitable test locations, adding, “I’m probably underestimating.” And there’s no telling if one of those sites has been secretly developed.

“It would be really challenging to know if they did that,” Bermudez said. “There are a lot of active mines in North Korea.”

It’s difficult to know what’s going on even with the Punggye-ri site. Only a handful of media outlets have been invited to attend (reporters from South Korea were barred despite a stated invitation) and in typical fashion North Korea is keeping a tight lid on information. Recent satellite imagery of the test site has shown workers deconstructing buildings and trucks hauling off equipment, but nobody is quite sure what to expect.

North Korea hasn’t sought to provide clarity, either. Only journalists are invited, no international inspectors or independent nuclear weapons experts, fueling speculation that North Korea is simply covering its tracks. If inspectors were allowed inside the tunnels, they could glean important details about the secretive country’s nuclear program, including the size and type of weapons that have been tested.

Lassina Zerbo, the head of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty Organization, told VICE News that his agency, which monitors for nuclear tests and activity under a 1996 international agreement, has not been in contact with the North Koreans. He was heartened by the move to shutter the test site, but he urged North Korea to take more concrete steps going forward, like signing and ratifying the test ban treaty.

“It goes without saying,” Zerbo said. “If you want to prove to the international community that you closed your nuclear weapon test site and will not do it again, you will abide by the international agreement that exists. We want to ensure the closing is irreversible.”

Cover image: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during a meeting of the 7th central military commission at an undisclosed place in North Korea. The content of this image is as provided and cannot be independently verified. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)