Nuclear site shutdown marks ‘good start’ but ‘complete denuclearization’ still far off

On May 24, North Korea voluntarily shut down its nuclear site at Punggye-ri, Kilju, North Hamgyong Province, the site of six nuclear tests conducted from 2006 to 2017. Although some observers have claimed that the gesture demonstrates North Korea’s intention to denuclearize, others remain doubtful of the regime’s real intentions.

So how do experts view the alleged nuclear site shutdown conducted by North Korea?

Lee Chun Geun, a senior researcher and nuclear weapons expert at South Korea’s Science and Technology Policy Institute, believes that the shutdown of the nuclear site is meaningful because “North Korea has promised not to conduct further technological development of nuclear weapons.” He believes the shutdown of the facility is a “good start.”

Lee added that while the underground tunnels Number 3 and Number 4 have never been used for nuclear weapons testing, North Korea could repair them to full working order if desired. Moreover, he points out that nuclear experts did not attend the event on May 24 to fully verify what North Korea did or did not do. Nevertheless, he argues that North Korea’s actions to shut down the site are significant in the broader perspective of taking steps toward denuclearization.

He adds, however, that there is “still a long road to go” before North Korea achieves “complete denuclearization.”

Lee says that North Korea’s nuclear program has become so utterly complicated that the country will not complete denuclearization while Trump is president. He says that the Trump administration must now focus on how to bring it about if it wants to see progress on denuclearization in the near future.

Lee believes the most important issue is for North Korea’s nuclear material and warheads to be removed and for nuclear weapons-related equipment to be destroyed. He also states that the issue of trust is always in play, which means North Korea must make a sincere effort to report on its progress toward denuclearization. Accordingly, Lee says that the US and the rest of the international community must have sufficient capabilities, data and methods to verify North Korea’s reports.

The following is an edited script of an interview with Lee conducted by Daily NK.

Q. North Korea blew up [parts of] its nuclear site in Punggye-ri on May 24, calling it a “shutdown” of the nuclear site, but can we view it that way?

Broadly, yes, it is a shutdown. There are, however, some issues concerning underground tunnels Number 3 and Number 4 that are unaddressed.

Q. What issues are those, for example?

They didn’t destroy the inside of the detonation room and just blew up underground tunnels. They could rebuild them if they wanted to. Underground tunnel Number 2’s detonation room had already collapsed during a past nuclear test so they just needed to blow up the tunnel. But Number 3 and Number 4 both should have had their detonation rooms destroyed for it to be deemed a complete shutdown.

Q. Do you believe North Korea could rebuild Number 3 and Number 4 and use them for nuclear testing again?

If North Korea has the will to do it, they can do it.

Q. Are there any areas of the recent demolishing of the underground tunnels that caught your eye in particular?

Yes. Particularly how the deputy head of North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Research Center explained the process North Korea went through to shutdown the site. The Punggye-ri site has long received a lot of attention. North Korea officially decided to shut down the site through a decision by the Party – without any pressure from outside forces. They did it of their own volition. They called the foreign press to witness the shutdown and showed they were completely done with the site by blowing up the living residences and support facilities near the site. Given all that, it can definitely be called a shutdown.

Q. As a nuclear weapons expert, there must have been some things you wish had happened.

They didn’t allow experts to witness the shutdown. It would have been good to go inside the tunnels, but they didn’t allow that. There were some areas of the shutdown process that were unsatisfactory as a result.

Q. Can you glean any insight into whether North Korea’s technological development of nuclear weapons will end with the shutdown of the Punggye-ri site?

Nuclear testing ultimately refers to both the development and testing of nuclear weapons – the whole process. I think it’s significant that North Korea said [in light of the shutdown of the nuclear site] they won’t conduct further technological development in the future.

Q. Do you think that means they won’t conduct any more nuclear weapons development?

It means that they have ruled out a major way of doing it. Why did they dig the Number 3 and Number 4 underground tunnels? Number 4 was rebuilt after conducting a nuclear test there. They did have the intention of modernizing their stockpile through further testing, but they’ve now abandoned those plans.

Q. Some believe that North Korea can conduct nuclear test simulations [without the need for the nuclear site] following their sixth nuclear test last year.

I don’t see it that way. Simulations are hard. They require a lot of nuclear testing and I don’t believe just six tests would allow them to conduct proper simulations. North Korea conducted a sprawling range of tests using plutonium, uranium, regular nuclear weapons and hydrogen bombs. I don’t think that gave them enough data. Simulations require supercomputers, really fast ones, and I don’t think they have them. Simulations, moreover, are just practice runs – you have to run simulations a couple of times and then see if they work out. Verifying the results of a simulation ultimately means you have to conduct a nuclear test. I don’t think North Korea has conducted those kinds of tests yet. They just haven’t done enough tests to make simulations a real possibility.

Q. Is there a symbolic significance to North Korea’s shutdown of the site, i.e. that they have shown the will to denuclearize?

Yes, I think it’s a good start, despite some unsatisfactory areas.

Q. The US talks about “complete denuclearization.” What is the basis of deciding whether “complete denuclearization” has been achieved?

Complete denuclearization doesn’t just refer to nuclear sites. Complete denuclearization means that North Korea goes through a set of procedures to report all aspects of its nuclear program (nuclear material and warheads), pass verification on all of that, and then shut down or ship out all of its nuclear material and warheads while shutting down its nuclear-related facilities. Ultimately, North Korea would get to a stage where it couldn’t develop nuclear weapons again.

Q. It’s uncertain whether North Korea would transparently report all of those things to the international community, don’t you think?

That’s where the “trust issue” comes in. It’s always been there. That’s why North Korea must be sincere in its efforts to report on its program, and the US and other countries must have the capability, data and methods to sufficiently verify it.

Q. Do you think it’s really possible for North Korea to completely denuclearize?

It’s hard to predict such a thing. There’s no reason to talk to North Korea if it’s all impossible.

Q. The central focus of denuclearization is the reprocessing of plutonium and enrichment of uranium. Can targeting these two methods lead to a satisfactory agreement between the US and DPRK?

Those two methods lead to nuclear weapons in the nuclear energy cycle. South Korea abandoned these two methods as it declared denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, so that’s why we are talking about it. However, North Korea is not at the stage of development; rather, it has already developed nuclear material and warheads. It’s not enough just to block North Korea from acquiring those methods. It’s important that the nuclear material and warheads are shipped out of the country.

Also important is the shutdown of nuclear weapons-related facilities. North Korea also conducted hydrogen bomb tests. They don’t just have plutonium and uranium; they have a factory enriching lithium and fusionable material along with a factory making heavy water and tritiate. Those facilities must also be shutdown.

Q. So denuclearization includes having North Korea dismantle all those nuclear weapons-related facilities and shipping nuclear material out of the country?

Yes. Nuclear material and nuclear warheads must be shipped out and the nuclear facilities must be dismantled or destroyed.

Q. Then it seems like the path to complete denuclearization still has a long way to go.

Yes, a very long way. The program now doesn’t compare at all with the program at the time the September 19, 2005 agreement was reached (when North Korea agreed to halt all nuclear weapons development). North Korea’s program has become so immensely complicated since then that I don’t think it will be completely dismantled during Trump’s term, or Moon Jae-in’s. Dr. Siegfried Hecker (a nuclear scientist) estimates it will take 15 years. That’s why the classification of “periods” and “stages” is very important. Trump will need to know what to focus on and how best to do it.

I think that the most important thing, ultimately, is the shipping out of nuclear materials and warheads and destroying the nuclear facilities. It will take a lot of time to completely get rid of any suspicions through special surveillance and verification. Generally the procedure for denuclearization is to first report, verify and conduct surveillance before shipping out materials or warheads or shutting down facilities. That’s going to take too long, however, so that’s why there’s talk about first shipping out all the nuclear-related materials in regards to the US and North Korea talks. That’s why setting periods of completion and stages are important. Complete denuclearization will come about first by focusing on things that are possible before using surveillance to fix all of the incomplete areas later.

The shutdown of the nuclear site is the same thing. It’s not perfect because no surveillance or verification was done. However, if at this stage North Korea has halted and frozen its nuclear weapons development, the shutdown of the nuclear site is significant. They’ve made it very difficult to start it up again.

Q. Is that because it takes a lot of time and effort to rebuild it?

Yes. Recovery is only possible with a lot of time. The shutdown of the nuclear site was done voluntarily by North Korea. You could say its “incomplete,” “they fooled us” or “they’re hiding something from us,” but from the broader perspective of a staged approach to denuclearization, it’s a very significant step forward.

Ha Yoon Ah is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to