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Work to repair North Korean nuclear test site ‘well underway,’ analysts say

  • April 29, 2022
  • , The Japan Times
  • English Press

By Jesse Johnson


More evidence has emerged of significant activity at North Korea’s shuttered Punggye-ri nuclear test site, as the country continues repair work at the facility that would allow it to conduct its seventh atomic test.


Satellite imagery taken earlier this week has shown the construction of new buildings, movement of lumber and an increase in equipment and supplies immediately outside a new entrance to Tunnel No. 3, indicating that construction work is likely happening both inside Tunnel No. 3 and outside in surrounding areas.


The Punggye-ri site was closed in 2018 — with some tunnels blown up — after leader Kim Jong Un announced a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests amid denuclearization talks with the U.S. In January, Kim effectively signaled that his country is no longer bound by that moratorium.


A total of eight new structures, including small buildings and sheds, have been erected near the No, 3 tunnel complex, with dark objects observed around the portal that are likely mining equipment and related materials, according to an analysis by North Korea-watching website 38 North of a satellite image taken Tuesday.


Imagery taken Monday and analyzed by Beyond Parallel, a North Korea-monitoring project run by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, reached a similar conclusion.


The group said that personnel were also observed playing volleyball in the courtyard of the main administrative and support area, as has happened in the past, including throughout 2017, when the North last tested a nuclear bomb at the site.


The site is home to four tunnels, two of which — Tunnels 1 and 2, where the North carried out its previous nuclear tests — would be difficult to quickly restore, analysts say. Tunnels 3 and 4, however, could prove usable after repair work.


After the site was dramatically blown up in 2018 for a crowd of carefully selected journalists, some experts alleged that the facility’s closure was merely for dramatic effect and was in fact easily reversible. They said testing could resume after weeks or months of repair work.


It’s unclear how long it would take to repair the site to make it viable for conducting another test, but some observers have said such a test, especially one of a lower-yield tactical nuclear bomb, could take place within this year.


“Although some sources suggest the seventh nuclear test could occur between May and September of this year, the date of a seventh nuclear test will undoubtedly depend exclusively upon the personal decision of Kim Jong Un,” researchers with Beyond Parallel wrote Thursday. “Current satellite imagery indicates that preparations are well underway and should not be discounted as insignificant activity.”


On Monday night, Kim oversaw a rare large-scale military parade, showing off powerful weapons systems and vowing to speed up the development of his nuclear arsenal while also appearing to lower his threshold for a nuclear attack “if any forces try to violate the fundamental interests” of his country.


During photo sessions with troops, state media broadcasters and others involved in the large-scale parade to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the army’s founding, the North Korean leader called on his country’s military to “bolster up their strength in every way to annihilate the enemy,” the official Korean Central News Agency reported Friday.


Late last month, North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile that Japan’s defense minister said was capable of traveling 15,000 kilometers, putting the entire U.S. within striking distance. Although the exact missile that was tested remains disputed, the launch still signified a clear departure from Kim’s nearly 5-year-old self-imposed moratorium on long-range missile and nuclear tests.


But a fresh nuclear test would be a rung up the escalation ladder.


Resuming the tests would allow the North to further refine its most powerful nuclear bombs or help it in its quest to build smaller battlefield weapons known as tactical nuclear bombs that could be deployed on its growing number of midrange missiles that put Japan within striking distance.


Kim explicitly laid out a goal of developing what he called “ultramodern tactical nuclear weapons” during a January 2021 ruling party congress.


In recent months, the North has tested a record-breaking number of new weapons designed to evade missile defenses, demonstrating that Kim has no intention of letting Washington and its allies forget about deadlocked negotiations over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, even as U.S. President Joe Biden remains laser-focused on the bloody war in Ukraine.


Biden will make his first visits as president to Japan and South Korea late next month and the latest news will serve as a sharp reminder that the North Korean security challenge continues to unnerve the two U.S. allies, prompting them to bolster their own defenses, as Washington remains keenly focused on the war in Ukraine.


Following the conclusion of a lengthy review of the United States’ North Korea policy last year, Biden’s team has repeatedly said that it harbors no “hostile intent” toward Pyongyang and is prepared to meet “unconditionally” with a goal of “the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”


But Kim has appeared uninterested in Biden’s pitch, condemning the U.S. offers as a “petty trick.”


Observers say the North Korean strongman has no intention of relinquishing his nuclear arsenal, as he believes it is key to his regime’s survival. Instead, he has ordered his regime to double down and prepare for a “long-term confrontation” with the United States.

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