Leader of South Korea requests foreign involvement in decommissioning of nuclear test site

Friday, May 4, 2018

On Tuesday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in contacted the United Nations and requested U.N. supervision of the decommissioning of Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site, a subterranean tunnel network beneath Mount Mantap where all six of North Korea's nuclear tests took place. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reportedly said during April 27's session of the 2018 Inter-korea summit he would invite journalists and other experts from other countries to witness the site's closure.

Kim Jong Un (left) and Moon Jae-in (right) shaking hands on April 27.
Image: Blue House.

A statement issued by the Blue House, the South Korean presidential residence, said President Moon phoned U.N. Secretary General António Guterres to request the United Nations confirm the shutdown, and Guterres responded, while that specific request had to go through the Security Council he would assign someone at the U.N. to work with South Korea. Moon's office also reported Kim Jong Un saying he would invite experts from the United States and other countries to view the site as it was closed.

On April 27, Kim and Moon met at a border village called Panmunjom to discuss relations between their two countries. They emerged with the Panmunjom Declaration, calling for removal of all nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula. According to Moon's spokesperson, Kim told Moon, "If we maintain frequent meetings and build trust with the United States and receive promises for an end to the war and a non-aggression treaty, then why would be need to live in difficulty by keeping our nuclear weapons?" International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials, in remarks to NBC News, said the IAEA is willing to assist with the decommissioning of Punggye-ri.

Director Jeffrey Lewis of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies described the closure as "of limited value, but it's not meaningless. [...] I would compare it to the blowing up of the cooling tower at Yongbyon in 2008."

Last week, Chinese geologists published a report saying the tunnels of Punggye-ri are likely to have partially collapsed after last September's nuclear test, itself of seismic magnitude 6.3 and triggering subsequent earthquakes. Kim said this was not the case: "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," again reported through Moon's spokesperson.

"This is a small but welcome step. But, as always, we must take North Korea's actions with appropriate caution," said former United States diplomat Mintaro Oba. "We can't rule out that Kim Jong Un wants to be seen as a maverick. He has a clear taste for bold moves that surprise the international community, something that sets him apart from his father."

"If reports are true that the tunnels have collapsed," said Duyeon Kim of the Korean Peninsula Future Forum think tank, "then the test site would be useless for future nuclear tests anyway, so it would just be a symbolic gesture to close it down[...] It's not a serious or sincere gesture to denuclearize." He also observed, "Advanced nuclear states don't need to conduct explosive tests after a certain point, so Pyongyang might be trying to show it is a part of that nuclear club."

Officially, the Korean War, which began in 1950, never ended. There was a cease-fire in 1953 but no formal peace treaty. At the April 27 summit, the leaders discussed nuclear disarmament, the reuniting of families separated by the partition, and general relations between the two countries.

Kim also announced plans to reverse a 2015 change to North Korea's time zone. The country's clocks are currently set 30 minutes ahead of South Korea's. "I feel sad to see that there are two clocks hung on the wall of the Peace House, one for Seoul time and the other for Pyongyang time," Moon's spokesperson reported Kim said during the talks. "Since it is us who changed the time standard, we will return to the original one."

Kim Jong Un and United States President Donald Trump have spoken of meeting in a few weeks, but no date or location has been firmly announced. President Moon plans to visit Pyongyang in person in the fall.