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North Korea Plans To Close Main Nuclear Testing Site


North Korea has conducted six nuclear tests since 2006, using the same site every time. Today, the secretive country took the extraordinary step of inviting international journalists to watch the site's closing. Kim Jong Un is making this gesture ahead of next month's planned summit with President Trump. And to discuss whether it has real consequences for the future of North Korea's nuclear program, Adam Mount joins us now. He's a senior fellow with the Federation of American Scientists. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ADAM MOUNT: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Help us separate the spectacle of the site closure from the substance. Does North Korea's decision to close this site actually change the trajectory of the country's nuclear program?

MOUNT: No, not in and itself. Closing the nuclear test site is a helpful political signal, but it's not a step toward disarmament. That's because the nuclear site is not the only place they could test. They could have other test sites prepared. And depending on how they dismantle this test site, they could re-excavate the tunnels and test here again.

SHAPIRO: Well, I wonder what it actually means to dismantle a test site. I mean, could they just put up police tape and say, do not enter, or blow the whole thing up with dynamite? Do you know what they're actually doing?

MOUNT: They have not publicly released plans about what they plan to do. We would expect them to detonate conventional explosives in the openings of the shafts where they test those devices to collapse the shafts. But it's important to recognize that without international experts there to verify precisely what they've done, we may not be able to tell whether they've collapsed the whole shaft or just the first couple of meters.

SHAPIRO: And so it sounds like, first of all, they may not need to use this test site in the future. And second of all, they might be able to use it in the future even if they do close it down, in air quotes, today.

MOUNT: Right. So in and of itself, it's not a step that can restrain North Korea's nuclear program. North Korea has other options for testing. But the nuclear test moratorium that North Korea has declared - they've offered to halt nuclear tests indefinitely - that is consequential. So that could prevent North Korea from developing more advanced warhead designs. But it's a political commitment that could be reversed relatively quickly.

SHAPIRO: Have international observers ever been allowed at this site before?

MOUNT: Not to my knowledge. North Korea's a very closed country. And this doesn't speak well for the future of nuclear negotiations with the Trump administration. The Trump administration allowed them to walk back their initial commitment that said that they would invite international experts. Now they're inviting international journalists. And so really we've lost the first public quarrel over verification, which is an important landmark.

SHAPIRO: What are the next steps that you're going to be looking for?

MOUNT: Well, for my mind, it's unlikely that North Korea denuclearizes altogether. The Trump administration has raised expectations to soaring heights, but North Korea hasn't offered specifically to dismantle a single warhead or a single system. Just a couple of weeks ago, Kim Jong Un told a domestic audience that he is moving towards mass production of various nuclear systems. That's a far cry from dismantling them.

So for my mind, the most important thing is to look for limited objectives from these summits. Don't go all or nothing on denuclearization because they're likely to get nothing. Instead, put a cap on North Korea's nuclear program that then can be screwed down progressively tighter.

SHAPIRO: Adam Mount of the Federation of American Scientists. Thanks for joining us today.

MOUNT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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