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[Feature] NK claims of denuclearization steps so far need to be verified

US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are set to negotiate their respective offers when they meet Wednesday and Thursday, with both sides expressing a commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

While speculation is rampant as to what might be on the negotiating table, Washington is expected to try to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear and missile programs and facilities. In return, analysts say, the communist regime is likely to demand measures to alleviate some of the sanctions holding its economy back.

With Kim having expressed his commitment to denuclearization on several occasions, hopes are high that the two leaders will draw up a more detailed, concrete road map to realize the joint declaration from their first summit last year.

One of the tasks at hand is the verification of the “preliminary steps” the North claims to have taken toward denuclearization -- that is, the dismantlement of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site and the Tongchang-ri missile launch site.

Punggye-ri nuclear test site

The Punggye-ri nuclear test site is the first site that North Korea claims to have demolished, following Kim’s pledge last April during his initial summit with Korean President Moon Jae-in to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.

This satellite image provided by DigitalGlobe shows the nuclear test site in Punggye-ri, North Korea, on May 7. AP-Yonhap
This satellite image provided by DigitalGlobe shows the nuclear test site in Punggye-ri, North Korea, on May 7. AP-Yonhap

As foreign journalists watched, a series of detonations took place at Punggye-ri on May 24, 2018, after which the communist regime said it had blown up all the tunnels and entrances to the nuclear test site and all related facilities.

“The Nuclear Weapons Institute of the DPRK held a ceremony for completely dismantling the northern nuclear test ground on May 24 ... to ensure transparency of the discontinuance of nuclear test,” the North said in an English-language statement carried on its state-run Korean Central News Agency. The DPRK refers to North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Hidden deep under Mantapsan in the northeastern part of North Hamgyong Province, the Punggye-ri facility is where all six of North Korea’s nuclear tests took place. It is the North’s only known nuclear test site, and its existence was revealed in October 2006 when the communist regime conducted its very first nuclear test under Kim’s late father, Kim Jong-il.

The first nuclear test was widely estimated to have an explosive force of about 1 kiloton, falling short of the regime’s expectations but enough for it to be slapped with international sanctions. After that time, the North demonstrated rapid progress in developing its nuclear arsenal.

The sixth nuclear test -- the most recent and the strongest -- was conducted in September 2017. The weapon, which the North claimed was a hydrogen bomb, produced an explosive yield of about 250 kilotons, making it about 16 times more powerful than the atomic bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

Upon analyzing satellite images of the site, 38 North, a North Korea monitoring group, said portals appeared to have been removed. But the group also raised questions about how “irreversible” the destruction of the test site really was.

Tongchang-ri missile launch site

The North Korean leader also promised to dismantle one of the country’s key missile launch sites, in Tongchang-ri, which appears to have been used to test engines for the Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile. The Hwasong-14 was the first North Korean missile that experts said was capable of reaching the US mainland with a nuclear warhead.

This satellite file image provided by DigitalGlobe shows North Korea’s Tongchang-ri Launch Facility on the nation’s western coast no March 28, 2012. AP-Yonhap
This satellite file image provided by DigitalGlobe shows North Korea’s Tongchang-ri Launch Facility on the nation’s western coast no March 28, 2012. AP-Yonhap

Kim made the verbal promise to Trump during their first summit in Singapore, and made his commitment official in September 2018 in the Pyongyang Joint Declaration that he signed with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in.

“First, the North will permanently dismantle the Tongchang-ri missile engine test site and launch platform under the observation of experts from relevant countries,” the declaration reads.

North Korea has six missile launch and engine test facilities, including the Sohae Satellite Launch Facility in Tongchang-ri, North Pyongan Province.

It has been the North’s main satellite launch facility since April 2012, when the country sought to launch a satellite known as Kwangmyongsong-3 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of late former leader Kim Il-sung. That first attempt failed, but in December 2012 the North successfully launched Kwangmyongsong-3 Unit 2.

At the time, the United States criticized the launch, saying the North was testing ballistic missile technology that would enable attacks on the United States.

Soon after the first US-North Korea summit in July, movements were spotted at Tongchang-ri to remove the engine test stand at the station, 38 North said. But the latest analysis of the satellite imagery in November said no new dismantlement activities were spotted from Aug. 3 to Oct. 31. Installation of new equipment, however, was seen, hinting that low-level activities might still be taking place at Sohae, the institute said.

While these preliminary actions have encouraged the denuclearization talks to continue, international inspections of the facilities are crucial, experts say. Representatives of international organizations such as the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency and nuclear specialists from UN Security Council member states could be called in to conduct the inspections, they say. The council’s permanent member states are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

By Jo He-rim (