This satellite image released and notated by Airbus Defense & Space and 38 North on March 30, 2018, shows the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in North Korea. North Korea said Saturday, May 12, 2018 that it will dismantle its nuclear test site between May 23 and 25, in a dramatic event that would set up leader Kim Jong Un's summit with President Donald Trump next month. (Airbus Defense and Space/38 North via AP)
Scheduled for closure: North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear test site pictured from a satellite © AP

US President Donald Trump has hailed a pledge by North Korea to dismantle its nuclear test site as a “very smart and gracious gesture.”

The US leader made the comment on Twitter after North Korea’s foreign ministry announced late on Saturday night that it would destroy its Punggye-ri nuclear testing zone between May 23 and May 25, and would invite journalists to monitor events.

The pledge is being viewed an attempt by Pyongyang to prove its sincerity about abandoning its nuclear weapons programme in the face of continued western scepticism.

However, many still remain unconvinced, pointing out the destruction of the mostly subterranean complex will not roll back the country’s existing weapons programme.

On June 12, Mr Trump will meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore for a landmark summit, which the US leader hopes will lead to the complete denuclearisation of the reclusive Asian regime.

For his part, Mr Kim has attempted to prove his goodwill with a series of gestures, including the release this week of three American prisoners who had been held in North Korea for alleged “hostile acts”.

State-run media said the dismantling of the test site would involve destroying tunnels, removing research and security buildings and closing up entrances.

“The Nuclear Weapon Institute and other concerned institutions are taking technical measures for dismantling the northern nuclear test ground . . . in order to ensure transparency of discontinuance of the nuclear test,” the Korean Central News Agency said.

All of North Korea’s six nuclear tests, including a powerful 100-kiloton detonation in September, which Pyongyang described as a hydrogen bomb, have taken place at the test site. 

Chinese scientists believe the site caved in after the September explosion and is leaking radiation.

"They no longer need a nuclear test site . . . it’s already useless because of the damage to the mountain," said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University. "[Dismantling the test site] is an action that can produce diplomatic profit without any practical damage to North Korean nuclear capability."

On Sunday, South Korea’s presidential Blue House on Sunday hailed the vow to close the site, saying it would demonstrate the North’s sincerity about denuclearisation "not through words but through action”.

"We hope that the sound of dynamite blowing up the Punggye-ri tunnels will be a gun salute in a journey toward a Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons," said Kim Eui-kyeom, a spokesperson for South Korean President Moon Jae-in. 

Relations between the US and North Korea, adversaries since the Korean war in the 1950s, have for years been characterised by mistrust and hostility.

North Korea has in the past made pledges to denuclearise, only to renege on the vows later. Pyongyang’s history of breaking promises has prompted scepticism among western analysts and conservative South Koreans about its sincerity to abandon its arsenal of some 60 atomic weapons.

Hong Joon-pyo, the conservative leader of South Korea’s opposition Liberty Korea party, on Sunday dismissed the pledge to dismantle the test site as little more than theatre.

Mr Hong said the move was akin to the North’s destruction in 2008 of a cooling tower at its Yongbyon nuclear complex, which — despite receiving much attention — did not result in Pyongyang halting its nuclear weapons programme.

“North Korea already deceived the world in 2008 . . . The Punggye-ri nuclear test site shutdown that they're planning is nothing new,” he said.

North Korean state media has urged critics “to restrain from words and acts that could undermine the rarely created atmosphere for talks”.

On Saturday, it also criticised Japan for repeatedly raising the issue of an estimated 17 Japanese citizens abducted in 1970s and 1980s and since held in North Korea.

“The reactionaries of Japan are hyping the ‘issue of abduction’ which had already been settled. This is just a mean and foolish behaviour to stem the trend of peace on the Korean Peninsula at any cost,” KCNA said.

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