Updated at 5:20 p.m.
North Korea has announced that it will dismantle its nuclear test site. According to the Associated Press, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry delivered a statement delivered through state media Saturday announcing the dismantling will occur between May 23 and 25.
Reuters reports that Punggye-ri nuclear test site has been the location of all of North Korea’s six known nuclear tests. At the site, there’s a system of tunnels under the mountain Mount Mantap. Journalists from the United States, South Korea, China, Russia and Britain will be invited to watch a special ceremony in which all of the tunnels at the testing ground will be destroyed and observation and research facilities and guard units will be taken down.
The North Korean government will provide journalists with a charter flight from Beijing to Wonsan, North Korea. From there, a train will take them to the test site in the northeast part of the country.
The Associated Press reports that plans to dismantle the site are not new: During his summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April, Kim announced that he would shut it down by the end of May.
In their joint statement released after the summit, Moon and Kim declared that there would be “no more war” on the Korean Peninsula and committed to a goal of “complete denuclearization.”
After the summit, Park Hyeong Jung, a senior research fellow at the government-funded Korea Institute of National Unification, told NPR’s Anthony Kuhn he was not sure Kim would completely abandon nuclear weapons:
“Park believes Kim will keep his nukes simply to demonstrate to his own people that he is the ruler of a nuclear state and therefore commands the respect of Washington and Seoul. In other words, nuclear weapons have become an indispensable ingredient in the cult of personality surrounding the Kim dynasty.”
The AP also reports that at a ruling party meeting last month, North Korea announced the plan to close the nuclear testing ground, along with a commitment to suspend all tests of nuclear devices and ICBMs. At that same meeting, however, North Korea said it has been performing a kind of nuclear test classified as “subcritical.” The “subcritical” experiments give scientists an opportunity to test weapons without causing an actual nuclear chain reaction and explosion.
Hours after North Korea announced plans for the dismantling ceremony, President Trump tweeted: “North Korea has announced that they will dismantle Nuclear Test Site this month, ahead of the big Summit Meeting on June 12th. Thank you, a very smart and gracious gesture!”
The dismantling ceremony is planned for just under three weeks before June 12, the date Trump is scheduled to meet with Kim Jong Un in Singapore. The meeting will be the first time a sitting U.S. president meets with the leader of North Korea.
Richard Fontaine, who served as a foreign policy adviser to Republican Senator John McCain, told NPR’s David Greene the announcement of talks between Kim and Trump is a “game changer,” but the escalation of talks to two heads of state opens up a certain degree of diplomatic uncertainty:
“It’s a game changer in terms of the diplomacy, certainly. I mean, often these kinds of processes lead up to a presidential-level meeting if they are successful. So you would have lower-level officials work a disarmament process, or something, and then have the heads of state come in and close it if it sort of materialized into something.
“This is completely flipping the script on that, and so it will start at the highest possible levels. The upside is that maybe this makes a deal more possible. The downside is if it fails then we’ve hit the diplomatic cliff and could fall off the other side.”
If the dismantling occurs at the end of the month, it will not be the first time North Korea has publicly destroyed a nuclear facility. In 2008, international journalists looked on as a water cooling tower at a facility called Yongbyon was destroyed. According to CNN, officials said it was a location where plutonium was extracted.
In her reporting at the time, CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour said, “They fired a warning flare and then in three minutes the whole thing came tumbling down in a massive cloud of smoke.”
“There was a moment of stunned silence as the magnitude of what had happened sunk in,” she added.