SEOUL—North Korea has begun to remove buildings from around its nuclear-test site in a step toward dismantling the facility, new satellite imagery shows, as the regime seeks to build trust with the U.S. after declaring its nuclear arsenal complete.
Roughly a week before the Punggye-ri site is set to host international journalists, images from San Francisco-based Planet Labs Inc., captured Monday, showed buildings gone and trucks working in the vicinity.
Pyongyang appears to be “sanitizing” the site, at the foot of Mount Mantap in the country’s northeast, to protect secrets before journalists arrive, said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif.
Monday’s images show structures gone from the entrances to the main test tunnel and a new tunnel to the west, and another structure to the south being taken down, said David Schmerler, a research associate at the Middlebury Institute and colleague of Mr. Lewis.
Destroying the site could serve as a visible sign of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s denuclearization pledge—and help maintain a detente on the peninsula ahead of talks with President Donald Trump in Singapore on June 12.
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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who traveled to Pyongyang last week to meet Mr. Kim, said Sunday that the U.S. is asking for “complete and total denuclearization of North Korea.”
“Total, full, complete,” he said.
A “huge gap” divides the U.S. and North Korea on a denuclearization deal, but it can be bridged if Pyongyang shows it is serious by handing over some of its nuclear and missile arsenal, said Moon Chung-in, a special adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Mr. Kim said last month ahead of his summit meeting with Mr. Moon that “the mission of the northern nuclear test ground has…come to an end,” eliminating the need for further tests. North Korea would dismantle the site to show it is committed to disarmament, the North’s state media said.
Over the weekend, North Korea said that it would close the facility between May 23 and 25—collapsing tunnels, blocking entrances and removing observation facilities.
During his April 27 summit with Mr. Moon, Mr. Kim said that he would consider inviting experts and journalists from the U.S. and South Korea to demonstrate the closure, according to a spokesman for the South’s presidential office.
While invitations have been extended to journalists, the absence of any mention of Western nuclear experts in the North’s weekend announcement raised concerns. The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization said it hasn’t been asked to participate in the verification. A spokesman for the International Atomic Energy Agency declined to comment on whether it had been invited, but said that it “stands ready to contribute” and would continue to monitor the North Korean nuclear program, “including through the use of satellite imagery.”
In recent weeks, there has been a debate over whether the test site is still usable following the sixth test there, in September. A team of international scientists published a study in Science magazine last week saying that a large part of the site had caved in after that explosion.
Mr. Kim told Mr. Moon during the summit that the test site is still usable, as international monitors would see when they visited.
Mr. Lewis predicted the North would follow the example of countries like France, which removed sensitive equipment from nuclear-enrichment facilities before inviting outsiders to view the empty buildings.
‘Closing the Punggye-ri underground test site, while welcome, is not sufficient.’
“That explosion should make for good television,” he said.
Even so, Mr. Lewis expressed reason for caution. For instance, North Korea could probably reopen those tunnels—though satellites might detect that—or dig news ones elsewhere. Still, he said, it seems clear from the North’s announcements that the regime feels no need for further nuclear tests.
In 2008, two years after its first nuclear test, North Korea blew up a cooling tower at its nuclear-enrichment facility at Yongbyon for international TV crews, though it then conducted five further nuclear tests over the next decade.
Steps beyond dismantling Punggye-ri will be needed to demonstrate a bona fide commitment to denuclearize, said David Albright, founder of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington.
“Closing the Punggye-ri underground test site, while welcome, is not sufficient,” Mr. Albright said.
Separate satellite images from DigitalGlobe—published on Monday by 38 North, a website dedicated to North Korea issues—showed that as of May 7, no tunnel entrances appeared to have been permanently closed, and two of the largest buildings appeared to be intact.
Write to Jonathan Cheng at firstname.lastname@example.org