North Korea destroyed its Punggye-ri test site in front of international journalists Thursday, pool reports said, in what Seoul officials said appears to be a step toward denuclearization ahead of a planned summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in June.
The North dynamited the northern underground tunnel in Punggye-ri, a northeastern remote area, around 11 a.m., according to a brief pool report.
The western and southern tunnels were destroyed after 2 p.m., followed by the explosion of barracks and other facilities at the site, including observation posts and laboratories. The dismantlement was completed at 4:17 p.m.
The northern tunnel, which was the first to be destroyed, was used for North Korea's second to sixth nuclear test. The western and southern tunnels were newly built and both were unused.
The eastern tunnel, which was used for the first nuclear test in 2006, was already abandoned due to contamination.
It was not immediately confirmed whether the North's leader Kim Jong-un was present at the site during the event.
The dismantling ceremony came mere hours after Seoul's Ministry of Unification said that there was a high possibility that the event would take place Thursday, citing the reporters' itinerary and local weather conditions. South Korea's state weather agency said rain of up to 30 millimeters was expected Friday, leading to predictions that the dismantling of the test site would take place Thursday.
North Korea had previously said it would blow up four underground tunnels, close all entrances and remove other facilities at the Punggye-ri complex between Wednesday and Friday, depending on the weather.
South Korea's National Security Council noted the move as North Korea's first official measure taken for denuclearization. The Foreign Ministry also welcomed the decision, while voicing expectations that it could develop into the full denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
A group of journalists from South Korea, the US, China, Russia and Britain arrived at the remote northeastern area of Punggye-ri around Thursday noon.
The train carrying the group left Wonsan, an eastern port city, around 7 p.m. Wednesday on a trip expected to take 11-12 hours. A four-hour bus ride and a mountain hike of more than an hour were to follow before reaching the destination, according to a pool report sent by South Korean journalists there on Wednesday night.
The reporters were expected to return to Wonsan as early as Friday.
Despite hopes that the dismantlement ceremony will lead to nuclear disarmament, experts remain doubtful of North Korea's true intentions, citing a similar event involving a cooling tower at its Yongbyon nuclear reactor facility in 2008. Foreign media were present when the tower was publically demolished to prove the North's willingness to denuclearize. But Pyongyang resumed its nuclear experiments the following year.
The North also did not invite international inspectors and experts to the ceremony.
Thursday's dismantling comes amid North Korea's sudden shift to a hard-line stance in dealing with the issue of denuclearization and the US in recent weeks.
Trump and Kim are scheduled to meet in Singapore on June 12, but Trump cast uncertainty on the planned summit Tuesday, saying it may be pushed back or even cancelled. Pyongyang has threatened to pull out of the summit if the US continues to pressure North Korea to unilaterally abandon its nuclear arsenal.
The Punggye-ri site, which was the only known nuclear testing ground in North Korea, was built beneath the 2,000-meter high Mantapsan, and six nuclear tests had been conducted there since 2006.