North Korea claims to have dismantled its only known nuclear test site, detonating explosives and collapsing its entrances in front of international television crews in a highly symbolic move.
Reporters at the scene described a series of explosions throughout the day, three of them in entry tunnels to the underground facility, followed by explosions that demolished a nearby barracks and other structures.
Tom Cheshire, the Asia correspondent for Sky News and one of the journalists invited to watch the demolition, said: “We hiked up into the mountains and watched the detonation from about 500 metres away. They counted it down: three, two, one.
“There was a huge explosion, you could feel it. Dust came at you, the heat came at you. It was extremely loud.”
North Korea did not invite any independent observers from overseas.
The gesture is meant to reinforce the pledge by the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, to stop nuclear tests before a summit with Donald Trump on 12 June in Singapore.
Despite North Korea’s desire to close the site, a war of words between Pyongyang and Washington this week cast a dark cloud over the summit, with both sides threatening to delay or pull out of the talks.
“Pyongyang wants a spectacle that leaves an impression of good faith,” said Mintaro Oba, a former US diplomat who worked on North Korea policy. “But its recent statements affirm the substantive questions of denuclearisation are going to be much tougher.”
North Korea has used the site at Punggye-ri for all six of its nuclear tests. The most recent one, in September, which produced a 6.3-magnitude earthquake that was felt across the border in China and Pyongyang, claimed to have successfully tested a hydrogen bomb.
Experts have said while decommissioning the site is an important diplomatic gesture, it will not affect the North’s nuclear arsenal.
Earlier on Thursday, North Korea reminded the world it was not shy about , saying the US had to choose whether it wanted to “meet us at a meeting room or encounter us at nuclear-to-nuclear showdown”.
The test site consists of four main tunnels beneath mountains in the north-east, by the monitoring group 38 North. While there has been some debate about whether the facility is still structurally sound, 38 North said two unused tunnels remained.
That appears to confirm Kim’s claim the site was still in good working order, after a group of Chinese geologists said it and was beyond repair.
The closing of the tunnels consisted of three explosions, with the first collapsing the entrance to the north tunnel, which was used for five tests beginning in 2009, according to the Associated Press. Journalists were taken to the tunnel entrance and shown explosives before moving to a safe distance, CNN reported.
“There were neither leakage of radioactive materials nor any adverse impact on the surrounding ecological environment,” North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Institute said according to the state run Korean Central News Agency.
But no international inspectors were allowed to survey the site. Experts have said that if only the entrances were sealed at the closing ceremony the tunnels could easily be reopened if Pyongyang decides to resume nuclear tests.
Before the closing ceremony, buildings at the complex were razed in preparation for a visit by 30 international journalists. The remote location meant the group had to travel 18 hours by rail and bus, before continuing on foot for roughly the last hour. Radiation monitoring equipment brought by some reporters was confiscated by authorities, according to Sky News.
The site’s location only became known in 2006 when the North conducted its first nuclear test under Kim’s late father, Kim Jong-il. Activities since have been watched closely through satellite imagery.