North Korea installs viewing stand amid preparations for dismantling of nuclear test site: Report

A satellite image showing North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear test site on May 14, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL - Satellite imagery shows that North Korea is building what appeared to be a viewing stand for foreign media invited to observe the dismantling of its nuclear test site between Wednesday (May 23) and Friday (May 25), according to a US website monitoring the reclusive regime.

The respected 38 North said on May 18 that additional steps towards closure have been taken at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, possibly including "preparations to build a safe reviewing stand for visitors" to observe the closure of all three Punggye-ri portal areas: North, South and West Portals.

Four rows of objects previously identified near the West Portal have been significantly altered and have increased substantially in height, according to the article by experts Frank V. Pabian, Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. and Jack Liu.

The article added that the location of the stand could provide a clear view of all three portals.

"Over the past week, small buildings/sheds have also been removed and general site clean-up has continued," said the website.

The planned site closure will reportedly involve the "collapsing all of its tunnels with explosions, blocking its entrances, and removing all observation facilities, research buildings and security posts", it added

In an earlier post dated May 14, the 38 North website said satellite images dated May 7 showed "the first definitive evidence that dismantlement of the test site was already well under way".

Separately, a government source told Yonhap news agency that North Korea has shown signs of restoring sections of a railway between the eastern coastal city of Wonsan and Kilju in North Hamgyong province, where the Punggye-ri site is located.

There are also signs of test train runs, reported Yonhap.

The source added that the North is apparently making preparations to transport foreign journalists to the nuclear test site which is sited at Mount Mantap in the country's northeast.

Another source told Yonhap it would likely to take more than seven hours for a train to arrive at Kilju from Wonsan even if the trains were to run at full speed, given that the railway line is decrepit with repairs needed for many sections along the 270km route.

The US monitoring group said the destruction of the tunnel entrances was likely to be carried out in front of the foreign media.

North Korea, which is believed to have tested six nuclear bombs, has said it will dismantle the Punggye-ri complex - its only known nuclear test site - ahead of a planned meeting in Singapore on June 12 between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

All six of the North's nuclear tests, the latest and by far the most powerful in September last year, which Pyongyang said was an H-bomb, were conducted at the Punggye-ri facility.

North Korea pledged to close the testing ground after Mr Kim last month (April) declared the country's nuclear force complete and said it had no further need for the complex.

Pyongyang has invited the media from South Korea, the US, China, Russia and the UK for the ceremony, scheduled between May 23 to May 25.

No Japanese media was invited, sparking speculation that North Korea deliberately wants to freeze Japan out of future denuclearisation and disarmament talks, reported Chosun Ilbo.

But a recent row with South Korea over South Korea-US joint military exercise has also raised questions over the attendance of South Korean media.

Last week, North Korea called off a ministerial-level meeting with the South at the last minute. As of May 18, the North had not responded to the list of eight South Korean journalists tapped to cover the ceremony.

South Korea tried to notify North Korea of the names of journalists through a hotline at Panmunjom, but the North did not respond.

The lack of response prompted the South and the international community to wonder whether the North would carry through its vows to dismantle the site.

A North Korean propaganda website, DPRK Today, on Sunday hailed the decommissioning of the Punggye-ri site as "a very meaningful and significant measure".

It lambasted conservative forces in the South, including the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, for underestimating the planned closure of the site.

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