An international team of seismologists has now determined that North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear test site is essentially unusable following a catastrophic collapse in October that left more than 200 North Korean workers buried alive.
Their findings confirm the work of a team of Chinese seismologists who published their work shortly before North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un declared that he would shutter the site as a gesture of friendship toward South Korea and the US.
Space-based radar showed that after the initial impact of North Korea’s latest nuclear test in September last year, a much larger part of the Punggye-ri test site caved in over the following hours and days, according to a study published in Science magazine on Thursday. The study was conducted by researchers from Singapore, Germany, China and the U.S.
"This means that a very large domain has collapsed around the test site, not merely a tunnel or two," said Sylvain Barbot, one of the authors who is an assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
The research feeds into an international debate over the value of Mr. Kim’s commitment to close the test site in the run-up to last month’s inter-Korean summit and his meeting with President Donald Trump, expected this month or early next.
Some US officials and experts see the closure as a significant concession while others argue that the site is unusable and its dismantling is therefore an empty gesture designed to gain leverage in negotiations with .
Though it matters less now that Kim has honored the US's request to release three American prisoners (and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's reportedly making headway in his quest to recover citizens who were kidnapped by the regime), the president and Japanese Prime Minister are still bracing for the talks to collapse (no pun intended).
Meanwhile, the study published Thursday echoed the findings of Chinese seismologists, who determined earlier this year that the site was basically unusable after a cavity inside the mountain where nuclear test were allegedly being carried out.
The new study, which created three-dimensional images of the site, backs the Chinese researchers’ conclusion that a large part of the site can’t be used—while showing that the initial damage is “dwarfed” by the gradual collapse detected from space over the next few hours and days. That damage covers an area with a radius of 800 meters and a height of 400 meters, according to Mr. Barbot, who is also an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California.
“These findings make us infer that a large part of the Punggye-ri test site is inoperable and that further test may require a substantial investment in the construction of another facility elsewhere,” he said.
The most recent North Korean nuclear test, which was carried out in early September, caused an initial magnitude-6.3 earthquake, followed by a smaller quake roughly nine minutes later that was triggered by the collapse of damaged rock above the now-ruined cavity, the Chinese study said.
Despite the fact that Kim essentially started off negotiations with a lie by offering a false concession to the US, some officials and experts see Kim's decision to close the site as an important concession - while others view it with suspicion - and see it as a sign that the North might be disingenuous.
But regardless, with the date and location for the talks set (June 12 in Singapore), just like Trump's withdrawal from the Iran deal - we won't have a crystal clear view of what will come next.