(Bloomberg) -- North Korea dismantled its main nuclear-weapons test site, even as the regime renewed threats to cancel a planned summit with President Donald Trump next month over the U.S.’s approach to talks.
North Korea said it carried out the demolition of a nuclear testing facility in the country’s mountainous northeast Thursday, according to the state-run news agency KCNA. The regime said the detonations -- witnessed by a selected group of foreign journalists -- were intended to put out of use the tunnels used for all six of the isolated nation’s nuclear tests.
While North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has portrayed the move as a natural step after declaring his nuclear weapons program “complete,” South Korean and U.S. officials have interpreted it as a gesture of good faith ahead of next month’s planned summit with Trump. Arms control experts say the demolition won’t impede further weapons development by Kim and the effort has been compared to North Korea’s destruction in 2008 of a nuclear reactor cooling tower.
The explosions came on the same day that Trump appeared to open the door to a phased denuclearization of North Korea in a televised interview. "We’re going to see. I’d like to have it done immediately, but you know, physically a phase in may be a little bit necessary," Trump told Fox News. "Would have to be a rapid phase in. But I’d like to see it done at one time."
North Korea hardened its rhetoric against the Trump administration, saying it was ready for a “nuclear-to-nuclear showdown” if the U.S. didn’t compromise. A top North Korean diplomat issued the warning in response to suggestions from the Trump administration that Kim risked the fate of toppled Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi if he didn’t make a deal.
The official specifically criticized remarks this week by Vice President Mike Pence, who was echoing earlier comments by Trump. “I cannot suppress my surprise at such ignorant and stupid remarks gushing out from the mouth of the U.S. vice president,” said Choe Son Hui, vice-minister of foreign affairs, according to a statement released Thursday by the state-run Korean Central News Agency.
“We will neither beg the U.S. for dialogue nor take the trouble to persuade them if they do not want to sit together with us,” Choe said. “Whether the U.S. will meet us at a meeting room or encounter us at nuclear-to-nuclear showdown is entirely dependent upon the decision and behavior of the United States.”
Trump has cast doubt as to whether the first-of-its-kind summit between a U.S. President and North Korean leader will take place as planned on June 12 in Singapore. Differences have emerged between the two sides over the pace and scope of “denuclearization,” with the U.S. previously advocating a rapid, unilateral approach while North Korea seeks a phased process of exchanges and concessions.
“We’ll see what happens,” Trump said in the interview aired Thursday. “Right now we’re looking at it, we’re talking about it. And they’re talking to us. We have certain conditions. We’ll see what happens. But there’s a good chance. I mean it’ll be a great thing for North Korea. If that happens, it would be a great thing for North Korea. Most importantly it would be a great thing for the world, so we’ll see what happens.”
The public dismantling of the nuclear test site caused the collapse of all underground tunnels as well as exploding some guard facilities and observation posts, KCNA said. The news agency said there was no leakage of radioactive material or adverse impact on the surrounding environment.
The news agency reported that the action “has clearly attested once again to the proactive and peace-loving efforts” of the North Korean government but went on to suggest that it will give up its nuclear power only as part of a global disarmament.
“The discontinuance of the nuclear test is an important process moving towards global nuclear disarmament, and we will continue to join hands with the world peace-loving people in building a nuclear-free peaceful world, a new independent world where the dream and ideal of humanity are realized,” KCNA reported.
North Korea’s criticisms of Pence “eventually raises the risk of the Singapore deal collapsing,” said Choi Kang, vice president at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. “What the North is aiming for with this statement, of course, is the maximum concession it can get from the U.S. And it’s the old tactic it has been using ahead of negotiations: Bluffing for concessions.”
The comments come as the two sides continue to send mixed signals. The warning came amid Trump administration efforts to soften its stance in advance of the summit, with the president saying Tuesday he wasn’t committed to an “all in one” approach. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also eased off U.S. demands that North Korea give up its nuclear weapons immediately, saying instead that the Trump administration wants Kim’s regime to take “credible steps” toward that goal.
North Korea had threatened to cancel the summit last week, citing U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton’s remarks that the regime could follow a “Libya model” of arms control. While arms control advocates cite Qaddafi’s 2011 decision to give up his weapons of mass destruction program in exchange for an easing of sanctions as a success, North Korea views his subsequent death at the hands of NATO-backed rebels as a cautionary tale.
“As the president made clear, this will only end like the Libya model ended if Kim Jong Un doesn’t make a deal,” Pence told Fox News on Monday. “The United States of America under his leadership is not going to tolerate the regime possessing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles that threaten the United States and our allies.”
Pence had been paraphrasing similar remarks by Trump saying the Libya comparison would be accurate if Kim balked at negotiations. “That model would take place if we don’t make a deal, most likely,” Trump said.
Before the recent tensions, North Korea had made a series of gestures that demonstrate its commitment to talks, holding a historic meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and releasing three American detainees.
During a meeting with Pompeo on Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged the U.S. to hold the summit on time, the official Xinhua News Agency said. Direct contact and dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea was key to solving nuclear issues on the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue, Wang said.
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