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N. Korea's planned dismantling of nuke site might be 'political show,' experts warn

In this Sept. 3, 2017 file photo, people in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward watch a TV news report on a North Korean nuclear test. Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site is marked with a yellow dot near the upper right of the image. (Mainichi)

WASHINGTON/VIENNA -- North Korea is set to dismantle and close its nuclear test site in Punggye-ri in the country's northeast from May 23 to 25 as a step toward its self-proclaimed denuclearization goals. But experts warn that the move might end up a mere political show emphasizing Pyongyang's eagerness to get rid of its nuclear program ahead of the June 12 summit scheduled between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore.

International journalists are invited to witness the event, but there will be no nuclear disarmament specialists present from competent international watchdogs such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO).

The Punggye-ri site has hosted six nuclear tests. Pyongyang conducted the first blast in October 2006 using an underground shaft on the eastern side of the facility. The next five tests were carried out in the northern shaft. The site has two more shafts, both unused, in its southern and western sectors.

North Korea intends to blast away all those shafts to render them unusable, remove all ground facilities including observation posts and laboratories, and transfer all research and security personnel out of the test grounds.

As nuclear test sites are sturdy structures designed to withstand nuclear explosions, conventional blasts are unlikely to cause emissions of radioactive particles in the atmosphere. A nuclear test site in Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan was actually destroyed using conventional explosives.

According to documents obtained by the Mainichi Shimbun, each of the horizontal shafts is about 200 meters long, U-shaped and has 10 doors -- allowing blast gases from the innermost compartment to be stopped by those doors.

The decommissioning of nuclear test sites was carried out by the United States, Britain and France in the South Pacific, Australia and Algeria. No international verification was conducted because all of those countries are nuclear weapons states approved by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). IAEA inspectors were present when South Africa closed its underground nuclear test site in 1993.

David Albright, former IAEA inspector who now runs the Institute for Science and International Security specializing in nonproliferation issues, hails the planned North Korean decommissioning of the test site, but adds it is not sufficient.

"Specialists must be dispatched to the site to collect samples from past tests and analyze them to determine explosive power and materials used," Albright told the Mainichi Shimbun.

North Korea is said to have first used plutonium-based bombs and then uranium-based explosives but no clear picture is available about its nuclear weapons program. The country has never allowed international inspections, including when IAEA inspectors were in the country from 2007 through 2009 as Pyongyang suspended its nuclear program based on an agreement in the six-party talks. The international negotiations were attended by the U.S., China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and North Korea in a bid to curb Pyongyang's nuclear development.

Apart from the IAEA, the CTBTO can play a positive role in the verification of North Korea's nuclear program, but it is not clear whether these organizations would be allowed to participate in the process. The CTBTO has special expertise in detecting nuclear particles as its network of state-of-the-art observatories did in the past. Its monitoring posts in Takasaki, Gunma Prefecture, and Canada picked up such particles originating from North Korean tests.

(Japanese original by Haruyuki Aikawa, North America General Bureau, and Koji Miki, Vienna Bureau)

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