North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test facility is shown in this DigitalGlobe satellite image on May 23 2018. Picture: DIGITALGLOBE/MAXMAR VIA REUTERS
North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test facility is shown in this DigitalGlobe satellite image on May 23 2018. Picture: DIGITALGLOBE/MAXMAR VIA REUTERS

Seoul — North Korea made a show of dismantling its nuclear test site on Thursday — even as it warned of a nuclear showdown with the US if the Trump administration did not change its tune on a summit, potentially set for June.

The dismantling of the test site, which international media were invited to attend, was a planned move portrayed by the isolated regime as a goodwill gesture ahead of the summit. Pyongyang announced its plan to "completely" dismantle the Punggye-ri facility in the country’s north-east, inviting some foreign journalists to witness the destruction.

"There was a huge explosion, you could feel it. Dust came at you, the heat came at you. It was extremely loud," Tom Cheshire, a journalist for Sky News who was among those invited to attend the ceremony, wrote on the British broadcaster’s website.

Yonhap news agency, citing South Korean pool reporters at the scene, said several explosions were heard throughout the day, beginning at 3am until 8.17am GMT.

Punggye-ri has been the staging ground for all six of the North’s nuclear tests, including its latest and by far most powerful one in September last year, which Pyongyang said was an H-bomb.

Experts are divided over whether the demolition will render the site useless. Sceptics say the facility has already outlived its usefulness with six successful nuclear tests in the bag and can be quickly rebuilt if needed. North Korea also did not invite any independent observers from overseas.

But others say the fact that North Korea agreed to destroy the site without pre-conditions or asking for something in return from Washington suggests the regime is serious about change.

Doubts over summit

The news of the "dismantling" of the test site followed threats from North Korea to cancel the summit in favour of a "nuclear-to-nuclear showdown" if the US did not change its approach to the disarmament talks.

A top North Korean diplomat issued the warning on Thursday in response to suggestions from the Trump administration that Kim Jong-un risked the fate of toppled Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi if he didn’t make a deal.

The official specifically criticised remarks this week by vice-president Mike Pence, who echoed earlier comments by Trump.

"I cannot suppress my surprise at such ignorant and stupid remarks gushing out from the mouth of the US vice-president," said Choe Son-hui, vice-minister of foreign affairs, according to a statement released on Thursday by the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

"We will neither beg the US for dialogue nor take the trouble to persuade them if they do not want to sit together with us. Whether the US will meet us at a meeting room or encounter us at nuclear-to-nuclear showdown is entirely dependent on the decision and behaviour of the US."

‘Credible steps’

Trump has cast doubt as to whether the first-of-its-kind summit between a US president and North Korean leader will take place as planned on June 12 in Singapore. Differences have emerged between the two sides over the pace and scope of "de-nuclearisation," with the US advocating a rapid, unilateral approach while North Korea seeks a phased process of exchanges and concessions.

"Choe’s statement eventually raises the risk of the Singapore deal collapsing," said Choi Kang, vice-president at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. "What the North is aiming for with this statement, of course, is the maximum concession it can get from the US. And it’s the old tactic it has been using ahead of negotiations: bluffing for concessions."

That North Korea agreed to destroy the site without pre-conditions or asking for something in return from Washington suggests the regime is serious about change

North Korea’s warning came despite the Trump administration efforts to soften its stance in advance of the summit, with the president saying on Tuesday he wasn’t committed to an "all in one" approach. US secretary of state Mike Pompeo also eased off US demands that North Korea give up its nuclear weapons immediately, saying instead that the Trump administration wants Kim’s regime to take "credible steps" toward that goal.

North Korea had threatened to cancel the summit last week, citing US national security adviser John Bolton’s remarks that the regime could follow a "Libya model" of arms control. While arms control advocates cite Gaddafi’s 2011 decision to give up his weapons of mass destruction programme in exchange for an easing of sanctions as a success, North Korea views his subsequent death at the hands of Nato-backed rebels as a cautionary tale.

Pyongyang gestures

"As the president made clear, this will only end like the Libya model ended if Kim Jong-un doesn’t make a deal," Pence told Fox News on Monday. "The US, under [Trump’s] leadership is not going to tolerate the regime possessing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles that threaten the US and our allies."

Pence had been paraphrasing similar remarks by Trump saying the Libya comparison would be accurate if Kim balked at negotiations. "That model would take place if we don’t make a deal, most likely," Trump has said.

Before the recent tensions, North Korea had made a series of gestures that demonstrate its commitment to talks, including holding a historic meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and releasing three American detainees — and allowing foreign journalists to witness the planned destruction of its nuclear-testing site as announced last month.

During a meeting with Pompeo on Wednesday, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi urged the US to hold the summit on time, the official Xinhua News Agency said, noting that direct contact and dialogue between the US and North Korea was key to solving nuclear issues on the Korean Peninsula.

AFP and Bloomberg

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