Grandstanding All Around as North Korea’s Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site is about to Close

A 38 North exclusive with analysis by Frank V. Pabian, Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. and Jack Liu

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As North Korea continues to prepare for the imminent closure of its Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site, some media reports continue to misrepresent certain aspects of this act, claiming that by dismantling buildings and closing the tunnels, these unilateral actions are tantamount to destruction of evidence and site sanitization. However, despite whatever actions may be taken in the next couple of days at the nuclear test site, the forensic evidence will outlast any explosions that may be used to collapse or seal the test tunnels. Organizations like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), if ever granted the opportunity to conduct onsite investigations in the future, have the tools to conduct drill back operations into the various test cavities to determine the composition of the materials used in each device that was tested. Those cavities and the melt puddles do not disappear simply if mixed with rubble.

Moreover, the instrumentation data was likely already transferred, archived and analyzed offsite after each test. This data, if not destroyed as part of nuclear negotiations with the US (as some reports have suggested), presumably could be shared (to some degree) with CTBTO experts if site investigations were to ever take place. It is also unlikely that the North Koreans would leave behind any valuable test-related equipment, cabling or other materials for observers to see or examine, but rather would salvage them. This is consistent with the North’s public statement that it would be “removing all observation facilities, research buildings” as part of the closing of Punggye-ri.

Another problem with characterizing the closing operations as destruction of evidence is that it presumes Pyongyang is under some kind of obligation to open its doors to foreign investigators looking into its nuclear program. Unfortunately, it is not. North Korea is not party to either the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and no agreement currently is in place under which such an investigation could take place.

North Korea has publicly announced that it will be using the event as a means to showcase that it is acting in good faith to “ensure transparency of discontinuance of the nuclear test.” While the technical value of closing the test tunnels to the overall denuclearization process is debatable (for instance, the US intelligence community reportedly estimated that it would only take a few weeks or more to reopen the site depending on how the site closure is conducted) it is, nonetheless, a first positive step in a larger diplomatic process.

It is true that despite an initial announcement that media and experts would be allowed to observe the site closure, only media personnel will be present at the official proceedings. And while it would have been ideal for international experts on nuclear weapons testing to gain access to Punggye-ri, North Korea never suggested that they would have been allowed to do onsite inspections or investigations anyway, only to observe from a distance with the rest of the delegation. In fact, it may be better in the long run that experts are not part of the delegation, thereby preventing claims from the North in the future that the site had been visited by outside experts.

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