By Lee Chi-dong
SEOUL, May 24 (Yonhap) -- North Korea took an initial but potentially important step toward denuclearization Thursday by tearing down its underground nuclear test facilities, less than three weeks before summit talks with the United States.
It dynamited the heart of its nuclear weapons program located in Punggye-ri, a northeastern mountainous area, in a spectacle witnessed by dozens of international journalists.
The South Korean government hailed the move, saying it marks "the first measure related to denuclearization."
"(We) expect it to serve as a chance for complete denuclearization going forward," Noh Kyu-duk, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at a press briefing.
The North's goodwill gesture came as the North's leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump are preparing to meet in Singapore on June 12.
In recent days, Trump has been openly, or strategically, vague about whether the meeting will take place as scheduled amid a trade of tough rhetoric between Pyongyang and Washington.
The odds are slim, though, that Trump will avert the summit plan and blow a chance for winning the Nobel Peace Prize in case things fare well.
With the Punggye-ri gift, the young and flamboyant North Korean ruler also sent a strong signal to Trump that he really wants talks.
Experts here view it as another major concession by Kim prior to the opening of full-fledged negotiations.
It represents a rare concrete action by Pyongyang in connection with what is widely expected to be a long and rough denuclearization process, adding to the April announcement of a decision to suspend nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches.
The series of measures indicate that Kim is serious about dialogue and could be flexible to some extent on the terms of a deal, according to Kim Dong-yub, a professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University.
"What's most noteworthy is that it's a pre-emptive measure with no (immediate) reward," he said. "It means the North has taken a step first."
It seems to demonstrate Kim's desire to expedite his showdown with Trump, which is aimed at bartering the North's nuclear arsenal with regime security assurances and other incentives, he added.
Kim has called for "phased, synchronized" steps by both sides, reminding the international community of the "word-for-word, action-for-action" reciprocal approach of the now-defunct six-party nuclear talks.
U.S. officials are skeptical about such a usually slow-moving, trouble-prone program and instead favor a rapidly implemented package deal. With the mid-term elections coming in November, Trump hopes for early tangible accomplishments.
North Korean and U.S. officials reportedly plan to hold a preparatory meeting in Singapore this weekend.
The closure of the Pyunggye-ri site is expected to help break the ice between the two sides and could be conducive to a "big deal" at the unprecedented bilateral summit.
Critics, however, play down the North's gesture, saying it does not guarantee the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of the secretive country's nuclear program.
They point out that it could turn out to be another one-off show by the unpredictable regime, similar to the televised 2008 removal by explosion of a cooling tower in the Yongbyon nuclear complex.
It's also unclear whether the shutdown of the site is irrevocable. The North has not invited foreign nuclear specialists, such as from the IAEA or the CTBTO, to closely monitor the purported demolition.
"A lot of this reminds me of the theater of when they destroyed the cooling tower under the Bush administration, and the media was invited to observe the tower exploding and (it) gave a good visual, which the Bush administration and the Kim family promoted," Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, told CNN.
For the North, critics also said, the test facilities are no longer necessary, as it has already declared the completion of a "national nuclear force."
Much of the site has become reportedly unusable as well due to severe damage from its six nuclear bomb experiments there, the first in 2006 and the latest in 2017.
The Chosun Shinbo, a pro-North Korean newspaper in Japan, stressed the Punggye-ri ceremony is a "pre-emptive step demanding that the dialogue partner take a corresponding action for peace."
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