International inspectors will be allowed into North Korea’s dismantled nuclear testing site, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday, after a meeting with Kim Jong Un in which he said: “significant progress” was made towards denuclearisation.
Pompeo met with the North Korean leader in Pyongyang on Sunday to rekindle stalled denuclearisation talks following a landmark summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump in Singapore.
“Chairman Kim said he’s ready to allow them to come in” and see the dismantled Punggye-ri nuclear test site, Pompeo said.
North Korea took apart the Punggye-ri facility in the country’s northeast in May but has yet to allow international observers into the site to verify its claims.
The facility, buried inside a mountain near the border with China, was the staging ground for all six of the North’s nuclear tests.
The inspectors will be allowed in as soon as the two sides agree on “logistics”, Pompeo told reporters in Seoul before leaving for Beijing on a whirlwind diplomatic trip.
Pompeo, however, did not comment on possible corresponding measures to be taken by Washington.
Denuclearisation of North Korea is “a long process”, Pompeo said, adding: “We made significant progress.”
The top US diplomat also said the two countries were “pretty close” to setting a date and location for the second summit between Kim and Trump.
‘A good meeting’
The visit was Pompeo’s fourth to North Korea.
Trump met Kim in Singapore in June for the first-ever summit between the two countries, resulting in what critics say was only a vague commitment by the North Korean leader towards denuclearisation.
Kim “expressed his gratitude to President Trump for making a sincere effort” to implement the Singapore agreement, according to a report on the Pompeo visit by North Korea’s state news agency KCNA.
“Kim Jong Un appreciated the positively developing situation on the Korean peninsula… (and) explained in detail the proposals for solving the denuclearization issue,” KCNA said.
The North’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper carried the meeting on its front page, with eight photos of the two men shaking hands and smiling broadly.
Pompeo and Kim had “a good meeting”, Trump tweeted, adding: “I look forward to seeing Chairman Kim again, in the near future.”
Washington and Pyongyang have sparred over the exact terms of the vaguely-worded agreement in Singapore, with the US pushing to maintain sanctions and pressure against the North until its “final, fully verified denuclearisation”.
Last month, the North’s foreign minister told the United Nations there was “no way” his country would disarm first as long as tough US sanctions remain against his country.
After a previous visit to Pyongyang in July, Pompeo had said the two foes made progress on key issues — but within hours of his departure, the North condemned “gangster-like” demands from the US, raising questions over how much the two sides really saw eye to eye.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Monday that he believed Kim would soon meet with the leaders of China and Russia “soon” as a “new order is being created on the Korean peninsula”.
As Pyongyang continues to take big diplomatic strides, analysts say the US may soon be pushed into a corner to relax sanctions.
“North Korea is bolstering its ties with China and Russia so although the US is maintaining the sanctions regime, it’s on thin ice,” said Hong Hyun-ik, an analyst at the Sejong Institute.
“President Trump is very close to losing control,” he said.
China and Russia — North Korea’s traditional allies — called for relaxed sanctions against Pyongyang at the UN Security Council last month, saying “steps … toward gradual disarmament should be followed by an easing of sanctions.”
North Korea has started dismantling some facilities at its main satellite launch station, seen as the testing ground for its intercontinental ballistic missiles, according to expert analysis of recent satellite images.
If confirmed, the analysis by respected US-based website 38 North could signal a step forward after last month’s landmark summit between Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump, although some experts questioned the significance of the gesture.
After the summit, Trump had declared the North Korean nuclear threat was effectively over, and US media reports suggest he is privately furious at the lack of any subsequent progress on the denuclearisation issue.
His public statements, however, remain upbeat and the 38 North analysis came as the president pronounced himself “very happy” with the way talks were progressing with Pyongyang.
The website said imagery indicated the North had begun taking down a processing building and a rocket-engine test stand that had been used to test liquid-fuel engines at its Sohae Satellite Launching Station.
Sohae, on the northwest coast of North Korea, is ostensibly a facility designed for putting satellites into orbit, but rocket engines are easily repurposed for use in missiles and the international community has labelled Pyongyang’s space programme a fig leaf for weapons tests.
38 North analyst Joseph Bermudez called the move an “important first step” for Kim in fulfilling a promise that Trump said the North Korean leader made during their June summit in Singapore.
Since Sohae is “believed to have played an important role in the development of technologies for the North’s intercontinental ballistic missile program, these efforts represent a significant confidence-building measure on the part of North Korea,” Bermudez said.
Trump said in Singapore that Kim had committed to destroying a “major” missile engine test site, without specifying the site.
Sohae has been the North’s main rocket launch site since 2012, and South Korea — whose president brokered the landmark summit between Trump and Kim — called it a step towards denuclearisation.
“It’s a better sign than doing nothing,” Nam Gwan-pyo, deputy director of the presidential national security office, told reporters.
“I believe they are moving step by step towards denuclearisation,” Nam added.
But some experts cautioned against reading too much into the work described in the 38 North analysis.
Melissa Hanham, the senior research associate with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, said that while dismantling the engine test site was a “good move”, it amounted to “the bare minimum” that could be done at Sohae.
“Unless they dismantle the whole site, it will remain North Korea’s premier location for space launches,” Hanham said on Twitter.
“North Korea does not need the Sohae engine test stand any more if it is confident in the engine design. As (Kim Jong Un) said himself, North Korea is moving from testing to mass production,” she said, adding that observers should look for signs of new sites where more missiles could be built.
“We ignored North Korea too long, and now it’s about managing how many nuclear weapons and delivery systems they have, not IF they have them,” she said.
A US defence official also played down the news, saying the Sohae site was not a priority in terms of monitoring the North’s denuclearisation efforts.
“It’s not on the radar, so to speak,” the official said.
In a sign of Washington’s impatience with what it sees as North Korean heel-dragging on the denuclearisation issue, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in New York last week urging UN member-states to keep tough economic sanctions in place to pressure Kim into moving forward.
China and Russia have argued that North Korea should be rewarded with the prospect of eased sanctions for opening up dialogue with the United States and halting missile tests.
South Korea has also pushed ahead with its reconciliation with the North since a landmark inter-Korean summit in April.
Seoul’s defence ministry said Tuesday it was considering withdrawing some troops from the border Demilitarised Zone on a trial basis — a move which could expand into a gradual pullout later.
The 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, leaving the two Koreas technically at war. The DMZ was designated as a buffer zone but the areas to the north and south of it are heavily fortified.
At their April summit, Kim and the South’s president Moon Jae-in agreed to cease all hostile acts and turn their border into a “peace zone”.
North Korea said it had fully demolished its only known nuclear test site on Thursday, with a series of planned detonations that put the facility beyond further use.
“The Nuclear Weapons Institute of the DPRK held a ceremony for completely dismantling the northern nuclear test ground on May 24… to ensure transparency of the discontinuance of nuclear test,” the institute said in an English language statement carried on the state-run KCNA news agency.
DPRK is the abbreviated version of the country’s official name.
“Dismantling the nuclear test ground was done in such a way as to make all the tunnels of the test ground collapse by an explosion and completely close the tunnel entrances, and at the same time, explode some guard facilities and observation posts on the site,” the statement added.
The institute said two of the tunnels in the mountain were “ready for use for carrying out very powerful underground nuclear tests at any time” before they were destroyed.
No leakage of radiation had been detected at the site during the demolition, the statement added.
North Korea is “taking technical measures” to dismantle its nuclear test site, state media said Saturday in the latest dramatic step ahead of a historic summit between leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump next month.
“A ceremony for dismantling the nuclear test ground is now scheduled between May 23 and 25, depending on weather condition,” the official KCNA news agency said, citing a foreign ministry press release.
The test tunnels would be blown up, blocking their entries, the statement said.
All observation facilities and research institutes would be removed along with guards and researchers, it said, detailing the process of closing the site.
Reporters from China, Russia, the United States, Britain and South Korea would be allowed to “conduct on-the-spot coverage in order to show in a transparent manner the dismantlement of the northern nuclear test ground,” the foreign ministry statement said.
The limit on foreign journalists was due to the “small space of the test ground” which it said was “located in the uninhabited deep mountain area”.
In a dramatic turnaround after Kim and Trump had traded threats of war and personal insults, the young North Korean leader vowed to pursue denuclearisation at a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in last month.
He is now set for the first ever face-to-face meeting between a sitting American president and a North Korean leader, scheduled for June 12 in Singapore.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Friday promised the US would work to rebuild North Korea’s sanctions-crippled economy if it agreed to surrender its nuclear arsenal.
“The DPRK will, also in the future, promote close contacts and dialogue with the neighbouring countries and the international society so as to safeguard peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and over the globe,” the North Korean foreign ministry statement carried by KCNA said Saturday.