An analysis of commercial satellite imagery by 38 North suggests that North Korea has begun the process of dismantling its nuclear test facility at Punggye-ri. North Korea has scheduled a formal decommissioning event and media opportunity for next week.
North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un promised South Korean President Moon Jae-in that Punggye-ri would be shut down when the two met in April.
“Some say that we are terminating facilities that are not functioning, but you will see that we have two more tunnels that are bigger than the existing ones and that they are in good condition,” Kim said in response to criticism that the site had become mostly useless as a consequence of underground nuclear detonations, particularly the massive bomb detonated in September 2017. There were reports that hundreds of workers at the site were killed by the four earthquakes touched off by the bomb.
38 North reports on activity at the site over the past three weeks:
Several key operational support buildings, located just outside the North, West and South Portals, have been razed since our last analysis. Some of the rails for the mining carts, which had led from the tunnels to their respective spoil piles, have apparently been removed. Additionally, some carts seem to have been tipped over and/or disassembled, and several small sheds/outbuildings around the site had been removed.
Other more substantial buildings around the facility remain intact, including the two largest buildings at the Command Center, and the Main Administrative Support Area. Moreover, no tunnel entrances appear to have yet been permanently closed. This may be because on May 12, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) announced that the final dismantlement of the Punggye-ri nuclear test ground would be witnessed by foreign journalists and would involve the “collapsing all of its tunnels with explosions, blocking its entrances, and removing all observation facilities, research buildings and security posts.”
One other interesting development picked up by satellite photos is a new structure, a “small square-shaped foundation.” 38 North speculates that it could be “a future camera position to record the closure of the West Portal.”
A new land bridge may also have been constructed for use in the decommissioning ceremony and planned visits to Punggye-ri by international media.
38 North notes that support structures and rail systems appear to have been dismantled at the South and West Portals, which lead to tunnel systems that could still be viable for nuclear testing. The North Portal is the heavily-used tunnel system that collapsed after the September bomb test, as mentioned by Kim Jong-un.
A group of small objects deployed near the West Portal is somewhat mysterious, although 38 North suggests they might be storage units that will be needed as the site is dismantled. The dismantling observed by satellite thus far has been relatively neat and orderly, rather than the frantic demolition one might expect if the North Koreans were trying to hastily sanitize the site and wipe out incriminating structures before international observers arrive.
“Pyongyang has publicly invited international media to witness the destruction, but not technical inspectors, leaving disarmament experts and nuclear scientists wondering how effective the plan is – and whether it will be safe,” Reuters noted on Tuesday.
Disarmament experts are particularly worried about the danger of spreading radioactive dust and debris with rushed efforts to demolish the tunnels, or conversely that North Korea could put on a show of dismantling Punggye-ri but leave the testing tunnels intact and keep nuclear material handy so testing could quickly resume at some future date.
“If it’s done well, there is no risk of radiation being released. But the question is, are these tunnels being sealed in a way that they couldn’t again be used? The only risk I see is that we will take the destruction of a couple of tunnels as a physical barrier to the resumption of testing in the future,” Jon Wolfsthal of the Nuclear Crisis Group told Reuters.
North Korean media announced that foreign journalists will be on hand to witness the full dismantling of the Punggye-ri site, which will include “collapsing all of its tunnels with explosions, blocking its entrances, and removing all observation facilities, research buildings and security posts.”