news 5 months ago

North Korea Plans 'Spectacle' at Mount Mantap

Newser — Kate Seamons

The world's last active underground nuclear testing site is set to meet its end this week. North Korea intends to close the Punggye-ri facility beneath Mount Mantap between Wednesday and Friday, depending on the weather, and journalists from five outside countries have been invited to attend and observe.

The North's stated plan is to remove the guard-related infrastructure around the site, seal the entrances, and use explosives to close the tunnels.

  • Setting expectations: "Expect good imagery, but not much else," quips the AP, which expects a scene "heavy on spectacle and light on substance."
  • Motivation: The AP notes that in revealing in April that the facility would be closed, Kim Jong Un said his reasoning was that North Korea has completed its nuclear development and doesn't need to conduct future tests there.

A physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists is skeptical: "North Korea certainly would need more tests to have any confidence in its H-bomb." A study released in April suggested much of the facility is actually useless due to collapses, though 38 North countered that by asserting there are two portals "located in more pristine competent rock" that it believes would be appropriate for testing.

  • The invite list matters: Or so say some scientists, including Adam Mount, a senior fellow with the Federation of American Scientists.

He points out that international journalists, not international monitors, will be present. Without the latter, proper verification won't take place, as journalists lack the technical background, tools, and access to do so.

Per the BBC, the UN-backed Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization would be able to vouch for the site's inability to carry out future tests—if only it were invited.

The Korea Herald is more equivocal about those who've been invited, saying it's "unclear" if experts have been asked to come.

  • As for that invite list: Media from the US, China, Russia, the UK, and South Korea have been invited.

The Japan Times notes it's unclear why Japan is missing from that list; it was a member of the now-defunct six-party talks that focused on dismantling the North's nuclear program.

  • Secondary motive? The AP notes the media will take a special train to the site, but that the press center and their accommodations will be in "faraway" Wonsan, "which is probably the most presentable city in North Korea after the capital" and one that has seen an influx of cash—with a new airport and hotels—as the North tries to make it a tourist draw.
  • Progress: 38 North takes a look at the site via satellite imagery from last Tuesday and sees potential progress toward both closure and this week's "ceremony." It observes that additional small buildings have been removed from the site over the last week, and that building materials have been assembled in an "exposed hillside location with an unobstructed viewshed" where an observation platform for journalists could be constructed.
  • Gone for good? ABC News reports it would be possible to re-excavate the tunnels if North Korea decided to do so, and it cites a report in the Diplomat that estimated it would take "weeks to months" to flip the switch.
  • Looking past that: The New York Times on Sunday was out with a report indicating President Trump is starting to have some concerns about the planned June 12 summit with Kim Jong Un.

"On Thursday and Friday, Mr. Trump peppered aides with questions about the wisdom of proceeding," and the next night he called South Korea's President Moon Jae-in to ask about the discrepancy between how Moon characterized the North's attitude and the threats the North issued last week.

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