Chinese scientists say that North Korea’s main nuclear test site has been damaged beyond repair.
Two separate groups of researchers have found that a mountain used in the last five of Pyongyang’s six nuclear tests collapsed after the latest and most powerful detonation in September.
Their findings bolster claims that North Korea’s freeze on its nuclear tests, announced over the weekend, was practical as much as political. US President Donald Trump had celebrated the move as “big progress” ahead of his planned meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un late next month or in early June.
On Friday Kim is scheduled to meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has demanded an end to North Korea’s nuclear program.
On Monday, geologists at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, led by Wen Lianxing, used seismic data to locate the collapse at about 700 meters (2,296 feet) below the peak of Mount Mantap at the Punggye-Ri nuclear test site, in North Korea’s northwest.
All of North Korea’s six nuclear tests have taken place at the test site, and five of the most recent ones at Mount Mantap.
Their finding, based on an analysis of seismic data collected from nearly 2,000 monitors, will be published in the peer-reviewed journal Geophysical Research Letters.
Another research team, led by Liu Junqing at the Jilin Earthquake Agency with the China Earthquake Administration in Changchun, reached similar conclusions.
A “rock collapse” was documented for the first time in North Korea’s test site, Liu’s team wrote in a paper published last month in the same journal.
Satellite images taken after the September test show signs of landslides, but they do not indicate whether any internal structure collapsed.
Zhao Lianfeng, a geologist at the Institute of Earth Science at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing who is not associated with either group of researchers, said the studies supported a consensus among scientists that the site was “wrecked” beyond repair.
“This is the best guess that can be made by the world outside,” he said.
That said, analysts have also argued that North Korea hasn’t completely lost its ability to carry out further underground nuclear tests, such as at other parts of the Punggye-Ri nuclear test site.
The scientists said the collapse has put China and other nearby countries at risk of exposure to radioactive debris.
“It is necessary to continue monitoring possible leaks of radioactive materials caused by the collapse incident,” said the scientists at the University of Science and Technology.
Guo Qiuju, a Peking University professor who has advised the Chinese government on emergency responses to radioactive hazards, said if fallout escaped through cracks, it could be carried by wind over the Chinese border.
Zhao Guodong, a government nuclear waste confinement specialist at the University of South China, said the North Korean government should allow scientists from China and other countries to enter the test site and evaluate the damage.
“We can put a thick layer of soil on top of the collapsed site, fill the cracks with the special cement, or remove the pollutants with a chemical solution,” he said.
All North Korea has to do is ask, he said.
This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.
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