US, IAEA likely to inspect NK nuclear test site: experts
Published : Oct 10, 2018 - 15:46
Updated : Oct 10, 2018 - 19:33

Personnel from the US and international organizations are among the most likely candidates for carrying out the inspection of a North Korean nuclear site proposed by Kim Jong-un during his meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, experts say.

In May, the communist nation blew up underground tunnels in Punggye-ri, its main nuclear test site, where its sixth and largest test -- which it claimed involved the successful detonation of a hydrogen bomb -- was conducted last September. It invited foreign journalists, including South Koreans, to witness the explosion, but they were unable to verify whether the explosion covered all of the tunnels.

The upcoming inspection is likely to be led by the US, experts say, with the possibility of assistance from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog. 

Reporters from five countries observe the dismantling of North Korea`s nuclear testing facility on May 24, 2018. (KCNA)

“The key members of the inspection team are likely to be the US and the IAEA -- and maybe the UN Security Council’s five permanent members that signed the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty,” said Hwang Yong-soo, an analyst at the Korea Atomic Research Institute.

“The inspection is part of the negotiation between the US and North Korea on denuclearization, so Washington is likely to lead the inspection,” he added, while mentioning that North Korea has always preferred to deal with the US rather than the IAEA concerning issues related to inspections of its nuclear program.

The IAEA takes inventory of nuclear fuel and fuel-producing equipment but does not usually deal with nuclear weapons or test sites. However, IAEA spokesperson Fredrik Dahl did not rule out the possibility of its participation, telling Radio Free Asia on Monday that the IAEA’s “verification role in North Korea would depend on any political agreement reached among countries concerned and authorization by the IAEA’s board of governors.”

Though the task mainly centered on comparing the actual size of the nuclear weapons program to the submitted inventory, IAEA inspected Libya’s nuclear-related facilities together with the US and the UK, following the North African country’s declaration to dismantle its program in 2003. Pyongyang has yet to submit a full inventory of its nuclear program to the US.

Experts also mentioned analysts under the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization as candidates for carrying out the inspection. The CTBTO was founded in 1996 to monitor compliance with an accord negotiated in the 1990s that bans nuclear explosions.

The treaty has not come into effect because eight countries with nuclear technology have yet to sign it.

Regarding the aim of the inspection, Hwang said though there have been nuclear inspections of global sites in the past, the nature of the North Korea inspection will be unprecedented.

“The main agenda of the North Korea inspection will be about finding and tracking the specific kind of nuclear weapons that were tested, and the size of the experiments conducted, like whether the tests were of uranium or plutonium bombs, how much of the materials were used and how much are left. Such inspection is an unprecedented one,” the expert said.

According to Hwang, Kazakhstan’s notorious Semipalatinsk test site, which was the primary testing venue for the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons, was inspected for pollution and radiation exposure, but not for its history of nuclear testing.

It will be important to collect samples at the site from the tunnels and the surrounding environment, to determine whether uranium or plutonium bombs were tested, experts said.

Regarding whether a South Korea-based expert will be included in the inspection team, the Seoul government is closely communicating with Washington on the matter, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said during an annual parliamentary audit of the ministry on Wednesday.

Further details regarding the inspection are likely to be discussed at a planned meeting between the US special representative for North Korea and the North’s Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui, which could be held as early as this week.

North Korea’s decision to allow inspectors to visit Punggye-ri could be a meaningful step toward achieving the goal of “final and fully verified denuclearization.”

“The Punggye-ri inspection means that inspection and the process of verification will follow key steps toward North Korea’s denuclearization. It could provide necessary data in assessing the North’s nuclear capability and lead to inspection of Yongbyon nuclear complex,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

The US on Tuesday noted that the inspection would be “an entirely different step” from the event that allowed viewers to witness Punggye-ri’s explosion in May.

“That’s a very good step,” US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told a regular news briefing. “What you have seen were a bunch of journalists brought out to that site, and you saw some sort of an explosion. Sending in inspectors to take a look around is an entirely different step and a step in the right direction.”