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North Korea's mysterious melting mountain

North Korea Leader Kim Jong Un meets South Korean union leaders

Donald Trump is taking credit for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sudden change of heart about building nuclear weapons, just as he takes credit for everything else that happens in the world. He says he’s willing to resume talks for a planned U.S.-Korea June summit that he called off in mid-May. 

But the situation suggests that Kim might have urgent reasons of his own to shut down nuclear weapons testing.

After two decades of North Korea alternating belligerence and conciliatory gestures about its nuclear weapons development, on May 24, Kim Jong Un's government invited two dozen international journalists -- but not weapons experts -- to witness the destruction of test tunnels in Mount Mantap, its underground test site for nuclear weapons. This significant gesture (now being questioned in retrospect) was overshadowed in the news media by another Trump tantrum.

Two days earlier, on May 22, VP Mike Pence had suggested that North Korea would soon go the way of Libya, with the mob deposing the leader and the country left adrift. North Korea responded angrily, calling Mike Pence "a political dummy," and threatening nuclear war. Trump responded on May 24 by calling off his planned summit to discuss that country’s growing nuclear arsenal.   

On May 26, Kim Jong Un held a surprise meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the DeMilitarized Zone, the second meeting in a month, although the leaders of the two neighbouring countries had not met for 10 years before that. News videos at that first meeting showed that Kim Jong Un walked briskly across the DeMilitarized Zone over to President Moon and embraced him, and they walked away holding hands. That’s a quick first date! 

Kim Jong Un also visited China, twice, unannounced, meeting with Premier Xi Jinping both times. The New York Times notes North Korea’s bare bones economy "has been long kept afloat by China," providing 90 percent of North Korea’s international trade. Now UN sanctions are hurting North Korea’s economy even more. 

Kim’s unprecedented, abrupt visits were not only contrary to international diplomatic protocols, they left commentators grasping for explanations for his visit. Perhaps he was being canny, bolstering support in advance of his meeting with the U.S. China likes having North Korea as a buffer state between it and South Korea, says the Times. But if China won’t trade, perhaps South Korea will, says another source.

On the other hand, few North American sources that discuss the upcoming summit also mention a relevant news story from the end of April. "North Korea’s main nuclear test site has collapsed following its latest bomb test and could be at risk of leaking radiation, research by Chinese geologists has shown," reported The Independent on April 26. "Their findings raise questions about Kim Jong-un’s announcement his country was ceasing its testing programme ahead of planned meetings with the U.S. president, Donald Trump, and his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in.”

Fortune Magazine reported that, "The test of the 100-kiloton bomb, which led Chinese seismologists to register a 6.3 magnitude earthquake, apparently opened up a hole of up to 656 feet in diameter. Part of the mountain then fell into the hole.....

"According to the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, another team from the China Earthquake Administration reckons the collapse created a ‘chimney’ that could allow the escape of fallout. The publication quoted researcher Zhao Lianfeng from the Chinese Academy of Sciences as saying the site was ‘wrecked’ beyond repair...."

And from The Hindustani Times: "Images showed that the nuclear test conducted by North Korea, which it claims was an Hydrogen Bomb, was powerful enough to sink an 85-acre area on the mountain under which it was likely detonated earlier in September, the Washington Post reported.

"Airbus’ Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellite took pictures of the Mount Mantap before and after the nuclear test. They showed ‘significant changes at Mount Mantap’s peak elevation. Prior to the test, Mount Mantap was 2,205 meters high; the mountain has since diminished in height..."

Let’s play devil's advocate here and suggest that perhaps Kim Jong Un is reaching out because the accelerating nuclear weapon program got, um, a little out of hand. The SCMP reports that "Lee Doh-sik, the top North Korean geologist, visited Zhao’s institute [Institute of Earth Science at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing] about two weeks after the test and met privately with senior Chinese government geologists." Two studies returned the same diagnosis: "Tired Mountain Syndrome," and emphasized the urgent need for international monitoring of how much radiation is released. 

Keep in mind that North Korea still feels threatened by the U.S. "nuclear umbrella" of submarines and bases in nearby countries, even though missiles are no longer based in South Korea. Also, the U.S. has supplied South Korea with THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) anti-ballistic missiles, which can explode incoming weapons 200 miles above the earth, at the very edge of the atmosphere. North Korea expects some reciprocity in denuclearization. It's not at all clear that the U.S. understands this.  
 
So while the U.S. president is strutting around bragging about his diplomatic prowess, and the North Korean leader is reaching out to neighbours for reassurance and support, experts in China are agitating to get into Mount Mantap and the Punggye-ri nuclear test site and start monitoring radiation levels, says the South China Morning Post.  The event was catastrophic. It shook villages hundreds of kilometers away. And if the mountain's collapse did leave a chimney whafting radiactive clouds up from the abyss, then experts want to put a lid on the chimney.

"Zhao Guodong, a government nuclear waste confinement specialist at the University of South China, said that 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 special cement, or remove the pollutants with chemical solution,' he said. 'There are many methods to deal with the problem. All they need [to do] is ask.'"

Image: Wikimedia Commons   

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