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Evidence will outlast explosion at NK nuclear site: experts

Experts who have tracked North Korea’s nuclear tests refuted media reports that the country’s dismantling of its nuclear site is nothing more than the destruction of evidence.

“Despite whatever actions may be taken in the next couple of days at the nuclear test site, the forensic evidence will outlast any explosions that may be used to collapse or seal the test tunnels,” experts including Frank Pabian wrote in a commentary for 38 North, a North Korea analysis website run by the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

“Organizations like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, if ever granted the opportunity to conduct onsite investigations in the future, have the tools to conduct drill back operations into the various test cavities to determine the composition of the materials used in each device that was tested. Those cavities and the melt puddles do not disappear simply if mixed with rubble.”

This satellite image shows the Punggye-ri test site in North Korea. (AP-Yonhap)
This satellite image shows the Punggye-ri test site in North Korea. (AP-Yonhap)

Pabian is a former Los Alamos National Laboratory fellow with 45 years of experience in nuclear nonproliferation, satellite imagery analysis, geospatial infrastructure analysis and geologic mapping.

The 38 North analysts added that the instrumentation data is likely to have been already transferred, archived and analyzed offsite after each test.

This data, if not destroyed as part of nuclear negotiations with the US as some reports have suggested, could be shared with CTBTO experts if site investigations were ever to take place, they said.

Media outlets including US broadcaster CNN reported, citing experts, that the dismantlement of the North’s only known nuclear test site in Punggye-ri would only destroy evidence that could have yielded information on the kinds of weapons that were being tested.

Pabian and his co-authors wrote in the commentary that even if the North could reopen the site within weeks after blowing up the test tunnels, as the US intelligence community reportedly estimated, the event, which Pyongyang said would “ensure transparency of discontinuance of the nuclear test,” is “a first positive step in a larger diplomatic process.”

Despite initially announcing that media and experts would be invited to observe the site closure, the North ended up allowing only a handful of international journalists, including eight South Korean journalists, to watch the event from a distance.

The 38 North analysts noted that while it would have been ideal for international experts on nuclear weapons testing to visit Punggye-ri, the North never suggested they would have been allowed to do onsite inspections.

“It may be better in the long run that experts are not part of the delegation, thereby preventing claims from the North in the future that the site had been visited by outside experts,” they said.

By Kim So-hyun (