Amid doubts over June 12 summit, North Korea on Thursday appears to have blown up tunnels at its only nuclear test site, Punggye-ri, setting off a series of explosions over several hours in the presence of foreign journalists. The explosions were centred on three tunnels into the underground site and a number of observation towers in the surrounding area. Getting to the remote site required an 11-hour overnight train journey from Wonsan, a port city east of the capital, Pyongyang. North Korea conducted all six of its nuclear tests at the Punggye-ri site, which consists of tunnels dug beneath Mount Mantap in the northeast of the country.
The first blast that happened around 11 am local time collapsed the North tunnel which was used for five nuclear tests between 2009 and last year. Two other explosions happened around 2:20 pm and 4 pm demolishing the west and south tunnels, according to officials.
South Korean media reported saying broken rocks spilled out from the site after the blast, “With a heavy boom that shook Mount Mantap, dirt and broken rocks spilled out from the entrance.”
The move to close the Punggye-ri site is meant to reinforce the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s pledge to stop nuclear tests before a summit with Donald Trump on 12 June in Singapore. Though it is not an irreversible move and would need to be followed by many more significant measures to meet Trump’s demands for real denuclearisation.
North Korea announced in April it would suspend nuclear and missile tests and scrap the test site, and instead pursue economic growth and peace. But the progress appears to have suffered a setback this month with North Korea raising doubts about an unprecedented June 12 summit in Singapore between its leader, Kim Jong Un, and U.S. President Donald Trump.
In a statement released by North Korean media on Thursday, Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui called US Vice President Mike Pence a “political dummy” for comparing North Korea – a “nuclear weapons state” – to Libya, where Gaddafi gave up his unfinished nuclear development programme, only to be later killed by NATO-backed fighters.
“It is to be underlined, however, that in order not to follow in Libya’s footstep, we paid a heavy price to build up our powerful and reliable strength that can defend ourselves and safeguard peace and security in the Korean peninsula and the region,” Choe said.
Choe said the fate of the summit was “entirely” up to the United States.
“We will neither beg the U.S. for dialogue nor take the trouble to persuade them if they do not want to sit together with us,” said Choe.
The Trump-Kim summit plan has hit a number of speed bumps recently as both sides have begun trading barbs and taking tougher positions. Trump met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Tuesday at the White House for consultations and suggested the summit could be delayed or even called off entirely.