In the summer of 2008, with TV cameras rolling, North Korea blew up a cooling tower at the Yongbyon nuclear complex — a goodwill gesture intended to show the world it was serious about striking a nuclear deal. A decade later, history is poised to repeat itself.
North Korea has invited foreign journalists to observe the dismantling of Punggye-ri, the remote mountain site where six nuclear bombs have been tested in underground tunnels. The demolition, slated to occur May 23-25 depending on weather conditions, will involve “collapse by explosion” of the test tunnels.
Much has changed over the past 10 years, but experts who study North Korea and its nuclear program warn that the plan for the nuclear test site and the 2008 cooling tower demolition are eerily similar: North Korea is once again offering a U.S. president something to brag about while not actually giving anything up.
“North Korea’s plan to demolish the tunnels in front of journalists is a perfect, made-for-TV moment, exactly like demolishing the cooling tower at Yongbyon was in 2008,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia nonproliferation program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. “It’ll make for great TV. People will be cheering, they’ll be clapping. It’ll be great. But it doesn’t actually solve the hard problems that will come after — the hard problems that destroyed the effort in 2008 to get a deal.”
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