North Korea said on Saturday 12 May that it will demolish its nuclear test site in less than two weeks, in a dramatic event that would set up leader Kim Jong-un's summit with President Donald Trump next month. Trump, in a tweet on Saturday, thanked North Korea for its plan to dismantle the nuclear test site, calling it "a very smart and gracious gesture!"
In a statement carried by state media, North Korea's Foreign Ministry said all the tunnels at the country's northeastern testing site will be destroyed by an explosion and observation and research facilities and ground-based guard units will also be removed.
Kim had already disclosed plans to shut the test site by the end of May during his summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in last month.
"A ceremony for dismantling the nuclear test site is now scheduled between 23 and 25 May," depending on weather, the Foreign Ministry's statement said, adding that journalists from the United States, South Korea, China, Russia and Britain will be invited to witness the dismantling.
The ministry said the North will continue to "promote close contacts and dialogue with its neighbouring countries and the international community so as to safeguard peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and across the globe".
Following the Moon-Kim meeting, Moon's office said Kim was willing to disclose the process to international experts but the North's statement on Saturday 12 May did not address allowing experts on the site. South Korea had no immediate response to the statement.
The North's announcement comes days after Washington announced that the historic summit between Kim and Trump will be held on 12 June in Singapore. South Korea has said Kim has a genuine interest in giving up his nuclear weapons in return for economic support. However, there are lingering doubts as to whether Kim would ever agree to fully renounce the weapons he probably views as his only guarantee of survival.
North Korea has been pushing a concept of "denuclearisation" that bears no resemblance to the American definition. The North has been vowing to pursue nuclear development unless Washington removes its 28,500 troops from South Korea and the nuclear umbrella defending South Korea and Japan.
Some experts believe Kim may try to drag out the process or seek a deal in which he gives away his intercontinental ballistic missiles but retains some of his shorter-range arsenal in return for a reduced US military presence in the South.
North Korea announced at a ruling party meeting last month that it was suspending all tests of nuclear devices and ICBMs, as well as planning to close the nuclear test site. Kim said during the meeting that the nuclear test site's mission had come "to an end" because the North had completed its development of nuclear-capable intermediate-range missiles, ICBMs and other weapons.
The North also said for the first time at the meeting that it had been conducting "subcritical" nuclear tests. These refer to experiments involving a subcritical mass of nuclear materials that allow scientists to examine the performance and safety of weapons without triggering a nuclear chain reaction and explosion.
Still, the closure of the underground testing site could be a useful precedent for Washington and Seoul as they proceed with the nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang, analysts say.
"Now that North Korea has accepted in principle that agreements should be verified, US negotiators should hold them to this standard for any subsequent agreement", said Adam Mount, a senior defence analyst at the Federation of American Scientists. "It will make it more difficult for Kim Jong-un to deny inspections now that he has placed them on the table".
North Korea has invited the outside world to witness the dismantling of its nuclear facilities before. In June 2008, international broadcasters were allowed to watch the demolition of a cooling tower at the Nyongbyon reactor site, a year after the North reached an agreement with the US and four other nations to disable its nuclear facilities in return for an aid package worth about $400 million. But in September 2008, the North declared that it would resume reprocessing plutonium, complaining that Washington was not fulfilling its promise to remove the country from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism.
The administration of George W. Bush removed North Korea from the list in October 2008 after the country agreed to continue disabling its nuclear plant. However, a final attempt by Bush to complete an agreement to fully dismantle North Korea's nuclear weapons programme collapsed in December that year when the North refused to accept US proposed verification methods.
North Korea went on to conduct its second nuclear test in May 2009.