Satellite images suggest NK is reactivating nuclear test site

The test launch of what state media is reporting is a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the North Korean Strategic Forces Hwasongpho-17, at an undisclosed location in North Korea. AFP/KCNA VIA KNS

North Korea has restored access to a still unused tunnel at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in a potential bid to expedite a seventh nuclear weapons test, Open Nuclear Network, a research institute, has said. based in Vienna.

Commercial satellite images showed “signs of increasing activity” since last December, particularly at the southern portal and the main administrative area of ​​North Korea’s only known underground nuclear test site, according to the research report. institute released on Monday.

“These developments clearly show that the DPRK has reactivated, or is in the process of reactivating, parts of the Punggye-ri nuclear weapons test site, particularly the southern gate and the main administrative area,” Dr. Katsuhisa Furukawa, Principal Analyst. for Open Nuclear Network and a former member of the United Nations Panel of Experts on North Korea, said in the report.

The Punggye-ri nuclear test site had “sent almost inactive” since May 2018, when North Korea dismantled all four portals or tunnels, except for the East Portal which was closed after the first nuclear test.

But since March, satellite imagery has shown more “visible” indications of Pyongyang restoring access to the southern portal, also known as Tunnel 3, at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in the county of Kilju of North Hamgyong Province.

A total of four tunnels, called the East, North, South and West portals, were built at different times between 2006 and May 2018 to carry out nuclear tests.

Pyongyang used the east portal for its first nuclear test in October 2006 and the north portal for the remainder of the five nuclear weapons tests conducted between May 2009 and September 2017. The country has yet to conduct nuclear tests at the portals west and south. nowadays.

Open Nuclear Network pointed out that “signs of excavation were visible near the secondary entrance to the south portal in March”, while there were no indications of excavation and activity in the other three tunnels. .

Satellite images from March 23 and 24 showed that “several signs of excavation activity were observed near the secondary entrance”. For example, an installation of what could be a road became “visible” in this area and appeared to connect to the likely secondary entrance or possible new entrance to the south portal. Indications of vehicle or personnel movements were also visible in the images.

“The DPRK has most likely already begun its efforts to restore the secondary entrance to the southern portal or establish a new entrance nearby,” the report said.

Satellite imagery this month also showed indications of construction and renovation activity, “increased vehicle traffic” and piles of soil accumulated, particularly near the secondary entrance to the south portal.

North Korea, for example, appears to have partially repaired the roof of the half-destroyed building located between the main administrative building and the southern gate.

A new building and a new visible object were seen being constructed in the same location as the two now closed buildings that had been linked to the excavation of the primary and secondary entrances to the south portal.

In the main administrative area, satellite imagery from the past week showed possible but “visible” piles of logs that could be “used for the construction of building(s) or the restoration of demolished tunnels”.

“Increased vehicle traffic” has been observed in the main administrative area and between the area and the southern gate.

The research institute agreed with the South Korean authorities’ previous assessment that North Korea could restore Tunnel 3 “within a month” in a bid to quickly prepare for the seventh nuclear test.

“Analysis of available satellite imagery is consistent with this hypothesis, indicating that DPRK excavation efforts have likely begun in order to restore the South Portal for use in an upcoming nuclear weapon test,” the report said.

“If the tunnel structure inside this portal was not severely damaged in May 2018, it may be possible for the DPRK to quickly restore access to the tunnel through the secondary entrance.”

The activities detected could be a sign of upcoming nuclear tests, especially at a time when North Korea last week waived its self-imposed moratorium on testing an intercontinental ballistic missile.

“It is considered likely that the DPRK could also end its moratorium on nuclear weapons testing in the near future.”

At the Eighth Party Congress, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in January last year called for advancing nuclear technology, miniaturizing nuclear warheads, developing tactical nuclear weapons and continuing “production oversized nuclear warheads”.

THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA INFORMATION NETWORK

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