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North Korea Said It Destroyed Nuclear Site, Hours Before Trump Cancelled Meeting

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea said on Thursday that it had destroyed its only known nuclear test site, three weeks before its leader, Kim Jong-un, had been planning to meet with President Trump.

Hours after the North Korean announcement, Mr. Trump announced he had canceled the meeting “based on the tremendous anger and open hostility” displayed by Mr. Kim’s government in recent statements.

North Korea allowed a select group of journalists from Britain, China, Russia, South Korea and the United States to watch its engineers destroy and close tunnels in its mountainous Punggye-ri test site, where the country has conducted all six of its nuclear tests. No independent outside nuclear monitors were invited to verify the dismantlement of the site.

In the ceremony on Thursday, North Korea used explosives to destroy three of its four tunnels at the Punggye-ri test site, according to dispatches by reporters at the scene. The fourth tunnel had already been closed for fear of contamination after the North’s first nuclear test in 2006.

The North Koreans also blew up test-observation facilities, as well as barracks for site personnel and a metal foundry, the reports said. Two dozen international journalists were invited to witness explosives rigged inside the tunnels, and they were then escorted outside to viewing decks 500 yards away, where they filmed the detonations.

North Korea invited mostly TV journalists to ensure that its action would be broadcast worldwide.

Although some analysts feared the moves would be reversible, the reported demolition was the first concrete step North Korea has taken toward what Washington had been hoping would be a complete nuclear dismantlement under Mr. Kim.

North Korea announced last month that it would end all nuclear and long-range ballistic missile tests, as well as close the Punggye-ri test site. It said it no longer needed to conduct such tests because the country already had nuclear weapons and wanted to focus on rebuilding its economy.

It is still not known whether the country will give up its nuclear arsenal. It is not even clear whether North Korea destroyed all of the tunnels at the test site on Thursday, or if the explosions would allow the site to be used again. No weapons experts were present to view the blasts and to assess the extent of the destruction.

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Mr. Kim announced the closing of the test site earlier this month, an announcement that Mr. Trump called “a very smart and gracious gesture!”

When he met the leaders of South Korea and China in recent weeks, Mr. Kim told them that he was willing to discuss relinquishing his country’s nuclear arsenal in return for security guarantees, the lifting of sanctions and other incentives from the United States.

But North Korea abruptly changed its tone last week, warning that Mr. Kim would not meet Mr. Trump if Washington insisted on its quick and “unilateral nuclear abandonment” without offering incentives.

Despite doubts about North Korea’s intentions, analysts noted signs that the North has been preparing for the shutdown in Punggye-ri in recent weeks, taking down some buildings, possibly in an effort to remove secret information before the arrival of outsiders.

Some analysts have also played down the significance of North Korea’s decision to shut down the site. They said that after six tests, all conducted in deep tunnels, the site had most likely caved in and become too unstable for another test. Others cautioned that the North might be shuttering the site in a way that could allow it to be reopened quickly.

In 2008, North Korea invited international journalists to watch it blow up a cooling tower of its nuclear reactor under a deal with Washington. But it restarted the reactor a few years later, after negotiations over its nuclear program stalled.

But when he met with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea last month, Mr. Kim rebuffed skeptics of the Punggye-ri shutdown, saying that at the time, the site still had two functioning tunnels where nuclear tests could be conducted.

“It’s true that shutting down the Punggye-ri test site does not prevent North Korea from ever testing again,” said David Wright, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “If negotiations fail or situations change in the future, it could decide to tunnel at a different site and build the required infrastructure needed to test.”

But Mr. Wright called the development on Thursday “a meaningful and pretty dramatic action nonetheless.” It could take the North months or longer to reverse the disabling of the facilities at the site, he said.

North Korea said it had invited outside journalists to the dismantling ceremony to ensure transparency. But it waited until just a day before the event to let South Korean journalists into the country.

In a statement carried by its official Korean Central News Agency, the North’s Nuclear Weapons Institute said it held a ceremony on Thursday for “completely dismantling” the test site to demonstrate “transparency” with its earlier decision not to conduct any more nuclear tests.

“Dismantling the nuclear test ground was done in such a way as to make all the tunnels of the test ground collapse by explosion and completely close the tunnel entrances, and at the same time, explode some guard facilities and observation posts on the site,” it said.

The institute said there was no leakage of radioactive materials during the explosions. It said that the entire site will be closed after further removal of aboveground structures and personnel, adding that North Korea was committed to building “a nuclear-free peaceful world.”

Source: NYT > World

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