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N. Korea announces test site closure plan

Airbus Defense and Space/38 North via AP

This satellite image released and notated by Airbus Defense & Space and 38 North on March 30 shows the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in North Korea.

ReutersSEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) — North Korea has scheduled the dismantlement of its nuclear bomb test site for sometime between May 23 and 25 in order to uphold its pledge to discontinue nuclear tests, the country’s state media reported on Saturday a month ahead of a historic summit.

The official Korean Central News Agency said dismantlement of the Punggye-ri nuclear test ground would involve collapsing all of its tunnels with explosions, blocking its entrances, and removing all observation facilities, research buildings and security posts.

“The Nuclear Weapon Institute and other concerned institutions are taking technical measures for dismantling the northern nuclear test ground ... in order to ensure transparency of discontinuance of the nuclear test,” KCNA said.

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will hold talks in Singapore on June 12, the first-ever meeting between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader.

Trump welcomed the North Korean announcement.

“North Korea has announced that they will dismantle Nuclear Test Site this month, ahead of the big Summit Meeting on June 12th,” he tweeted. “Thank you, a very smart and gracious gesture!”

South Korea’s presidential office echoed the sentiment on Sunday, saying it shows Pyongyang’s willingness to denuclearize through actions beyond words.

However, in spite of its pledge to stop testing, North Korea has given no indication it is willing to go beyond statements of broad conceptual support for denuclearization by unilaterally abandoning a nuclear weapons program its ruling family has seen as crucial to its survival.

KCNA said journalists, including from the United States and South Korea, would be invited to cover the event, to “show in a transparent manner the dismantlement of the northern nuclear test ground to be carried out.” The exact date of the closure will depend on weather conditions, the agency said.

No mention of experts

South Korean officials said in April that North Korea also planned to invite experts from the United States and South Korea for the Punggye-ri shutdown, but KCNA made no mention of this.

Last month, South Korean President Moon Jae In had asked the United Nations to help verify the shutdown.

South Korea’s deputy nuclear envoy Jeong Yeon Doo will visit the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna this week to discuss the “complete denuclearization of North Korea” the foreign ministry said on Sunday.

All of North Korea’s six known nuclear bomb tests have taken place at Punggye-ri, in northeastern of North Korea where a system of tunnels have been dug under Mount Mantap.

According to Chinese academic reports, North Korea’s most recent nuclear test in September of what Pyongyang said was a hydrogen bomb, was so large it triggered a collapse inside the mountain, rendering the entire site unusable for future tests.

But U.S. intelligence officials have said it remains usable and could be reactivated “in a relatively short period of time” if it was closed.

Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the United States and a leading expert on North Korea’s nuclear program, said collapsing the Punggye-ri tunnels would be “a big and positive step,” given his belief that North Korea still required more nuclear and missile tests to reach the U.S. mainland with a nuclear-tipped missile.

However, he said the other crucial steps North Korea needed to take to demilitarize its nuclear program were to shut its plutonium production reactor, and open its uranium processing to inspection.Speech

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