Destruction Of North Korean Nuclear Test Site Apparently Just For Show

A couple weeks ago, the North Koreans made a big deal about destroying their nuclear test site. It now appears that the event the media witnessed was less than meets the eye.

CNN is reporting that the much-vaunted destruction of North Korea’s underground nuclear weapons testing site appears to have been much less than meets the eye:

Preliminary analysis of North Korea’s detonation indicates the explosions were not strong enough to destroy the tunnels, a US official with knowledge of the findings told CNN.

The analysis is based on seismic sensors in the region that calculated how large the explosive events were at the time.

This may be one of the clearest indications that at least portions of the tunnel complex remain usable, something the US had suspected since the North Koreans allowed media to view the detonations.

US officials have also confirmed that imagery shows technical equipment was removed from the tunnel complex prior to the detonations, indicating the North Koreans were keeping gear for potential reuse.

A CNN crew at the remote mountain site in the country’s north witnessed explosions at nuclear tunnels 2, 3 and 4 from observation decks about 500 meters (547 yards) away. They were among two dozen journalists invited into the country to observe the apparent destruction of the site.

(…)

No weapons inspectors or nonproliferation experts were invited to witness the detonation, and now initial assessments indicate that the show was essentially a charade.

“The explosions seem to have been too small” for scientists to have discerned any significant geologic activity such as collapsing tunnels, an international arms control official who follows North Korea closely told CNN.

“The fact that journalists were reportedly only around 500 meters from the explosions is a good indication that these were small blasts. And the amount of dust leads us to believe that they were quite superficial,” the official said.

This finding is also underscored by US intelligence.

Preliminary analysis of North Korea’s detonation indicates the explosions were not strong enough to destroy the tunnels, a US official with knowledge of the findings told CNN.

The analysis is based on seismic sensors in the region that calculated how large the explosive events were at the time.

This may be one of the clearest indications that at least portions of the tunnel complex remain usable, something the US had suspected since the North Koreans allowed media to view the detonations.

US officials have also confirmed that imagery shows technical equipment was removed from the tunnel complex prior to the detonations, indicating the North Koreans were keeping gear for potential reuse.

This report is consistent with other reporting around the time that the North Koreans carried out the unusually well-publicized act of appearing to destroy a facility that they had been using for the past ten years or more to test their increasingly more powerful nuclear arsenal. For example. as far back as the time the DPRK conducted its last test, there were some experts who suggested that the blast was so powerful that it resulted in tunnel collapse that the North Koreans had not anticipated and that the site had essentially become unusable for the foreseeable future absent significant repair. Other analysts suggested that, with the last test the North Koreans had achieved a level of sophistication in their nuclear weapons research and development program that would allow them to feel confident about moving forward with production without the further need for testing.

This was seemingly confirmed by comments that Kim Jong Un made at the beginning of the year when he first extended an olive branch to the South Koreans. In that speech, Kim said that the DPRK and reached the point in its nuclear testing program that it no longer needed to test and that it now had what it considered a sufficient nuclear deterrent. With that in mind, the supposed “destruction” of the nuclear test site always had a Potemkin village feel to it from the state. With this report, the significance of the event is put into even further perspective. Not only was the “destruction” of the test site a largely pointless act for the reasons stated above, but it appears from this report that the North Koreans could easily repair and begin reusing the site in the future if they desired to and that the entire event was just a spectacle staged for the media by a regime that specializes in staging spectacles for propaganda purposes.

The other issue this brings up, of course, is the fact that we need to be cautious about any agreement that may come from the upcoming June 12th summit or future talks that may result from it. We head into these negotiations with a seventy year history of mutual distrust between and among all the relevant parties, so it will be important for both sides to agree to inspections that each side will have confidence in. The best avenue for achieving that, it seems to me, would be via the involvement of an independent agency such as the Independent Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) and the United Nations. The problem, of course, is that both of these organizations are viewed skeptically on the right and by members of the Trump Administration such as National Security Adviser John Bolton. In addition, reports such as this should guide the rest of us to take any predictions of success or claims of victory that may come out of the June 12th summit with a grain of salt. While Kim Jong Un will get what he wants simply by becoming the first leader of the DPRK to meet a sitting President of the United States, not to mention getting his hotel bill paid for by the American taxpayer, President Trump and his Administration will be eager to find some “deliverable” they can point to as a sign of success. As this report suggests, it could be very easy for the North Koreans to deliver on something without actually giving anything up.

FILED UNDER: Asia, North Korea, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Todd says:

    This is among the least surprising news ever. Sadly, 1/3 of Americans (give or take) will be convinced that this information is the “fake news” … you know, because the “liberal media” doesn’t want to give Trump credit for *making Kim blow up the site.

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  2. michael reynolds says:

    This is very hard to believe. I mean, Kim sent Trump a very nice letter. So nice that Trump didn’t actually read it, but just knows by intuition that it’s a very nice letter. It like, radiated niceness. So obviously this is fake news.

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  3. CSK says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Trump did his famous Carnac the Magnificent impression: He held the envelope to his forehead and divined its contents.

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  4. Mr. Prosser says:

    @CSK: My laugh for the morning, thanks.

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  5. CSK says:

    @Mr. Prosser:

    My pleasure.

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  6. gVOR08 says:

    A nice bright, shiny apparent concession with no substance. Exactly what Trumpsky wants from Kim.

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  7. TM01 says:

    OMG.

    Who CARES about details? All that matters is getting some kind of deal! Who cares what we have to give up to get it?

    Thanks to the JCPOA, that’s the norm to which Trump must adhere.

    And The Norm is what is paramount.

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  8. michael reynolds says:

    @TM01:
    So you despise the JCPOA and thus welcome a much worse deal.

    Got it.

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  9. Kylopod says:

    Every few days, it seems, the Trumpies seem to go back and forth between “The latest news show that Trump is the awesomest deal-maker ever!” and “It’s all Obama’s fault.”

    If their purpose is to make liberals’ head spin, they sure are succeeding.

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