Nuke test site could be revived: JCS chief

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Nuke test site could be revived: JCS chief

North Korea could rebuild its nuclear test site at Punggye-ri given the right circumstances, South Korea’s top military official said Tuesday.

This remark from Park Han-ki, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), represented the first time South Korea’s military acknowledged the possibility that Pyongyang could restore Punggye-ri to its original function - reversing the most tangible symbol of its commitment to denuclearization.

Known as the regime’s only nuclear test site, the facilities and tunnels at Punggye-ri in North Hamgyong Province were allegedly dismantled on May 24, 2018, as North Korea announced it would suspend further nuclear tests to support diplomatic efforts with the United States and South Korea.

At the time, Pyongyang invited journalists from five countries including South Korea to witness demolitions of tunnels at Punggye-ri, within which nuclear devices were detonated for testing, as a proof of its sincerity in undertaking denuclearization.

It was unclear then whether detonations of the tunnels went beyond their openings.

In a parliamentary audit session by the legislature’s National Defense Committee, Rep. Ha Tae-keung, an opposition lawmaker of the Bareunmirae Party, asked Park his assessment of the likelihood of resumed nuclear testing by North Korea, referencing an ominous comment made by Kim Myong-gil, the regime’s top nuclear negotiator, following the breakdown of discussions with the United States on Saturday. Kim told reporters in Sweden immediately after the talks that it was “entirely up to the United States” whether North Korea would maintain its moratorium on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests.

Park replied that based on the South Korean military’s observations, Punggye-ri’s tunnels No. 1 and 2 were demolished beyond recovery but that tunnels No. 3 and 4 could be “repaired and used based on circumstances,” implying that resuming nuclear weapons development wouldn’t be difficult.

Park was asked about press reports at the time of the Punggye-ri detonations alleging that only the entrances of the tunnels were destroyed. Outlets that were part of the press pool like CBS and CNN said that journalists only witnessed the gates to the tunnels being destroyed from a distance of approximately 500 meters (1,640 feet) and that they were not allowed to verify how extensive the demolitions had been.

Tunnels No. 3 and 4 were widely seen as having been used for testing the regime’s more modern nuclear weapons and were more important.

The chairman of the JCS said if Pyongyang wanted to use the Punggye-ri facilities once again, it could after “a few weeks to a few months” of recovery efforts. Kim Young-hwan, chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency under the Ministry of National Defense, also told lawmakers that it was possible for the North to restore Punggye-ri for regular use, even though there have been no signs of reconstruction efforts so far.

In the 2019 report on “Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments,” the U.S. State Department assessed that the results of the detonations at Punggye-ri “are almost certainly reversible” and that the regime could “develop another nuclear test site, if it chose to do so.”

BY LEE CHUL-JAE, SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]

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