North Korea may be making rapid preparations to carry out a nuclear weapons test for the first time in more than four years, according to a South Korean media report.
The Yonhap news agency, quoting government sources, said North Korea appeared to be digging a “shortcut” to Tunnel 3 at its previously closed nuclear test site in Punggye-ri.
Analysts at the Center for Non-Proliferation Studies (CNS) had said at the beginning of March that satellite images showed signs of rebuilding at the site, but that getting it back up and running could take months or years. Now, Kim Jong-un’s regime may have changed tack.
“[The North] abruptly stopped its initial construction work to restore the entrance to Tunnel 3, and it is digging up the side [of the tunnel],” Yonhap quoted a source as saying. “In this way, it seems like it will be possible to restore [the facilities] in a month.”
Punggye-ri is North Korea’s only known nuclear test site. It conducted six nuclear weapons tests in tunnels at the site from 2006 to 2017. North Korea’s last and largest nuclear test appeared to trigger geological instability that caused multiple small earthquakes, but analysts and US intelligence officials have said the site could probably be used again.
The development comes a few days after North Korea broke a UN ban and fired an intercontinental ballistic missile. Japan and South Korea said it traveled 1,080km (670 miles), reaching a maximum altitude of more than 6,200km, coming down 90 miles west of the Oshima peninsula on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost main island.
The missile, dubbed the Hwasong-17, was the largest liquid-fueled missile ever launched from a road-mobile launcher, analysts said. It was the first time since 2017 that North Korea had tested an ICBM and represented a significant step in Pyongyang’s development of weapons that might be able to strike targets in the US.
Kim ordered the test because of the “daily escalating military tension in and around the Korean peninsula” and the “inevitability of the longstanding confrontation with the US imperialists accompanied by the danger of a nuclear war”, the state-run KCNA news agency said at the time.
North Korea tested a record number of missiles in January and also appears to be preparing to launch a spy satellite.
Images captured by satellite early in March showed very early signs of activity at the Punggye-ri site, including construction and repairs, specialists at the California-based CNS said in a report.
“One possibility is that North Korea plans to bring the test site back to a state of readiness to resume nuclear explosive testing,” the report said. “How long it would take North Korea to summarize explosive testing at the site depends on the extent of the damage to the tunnels themselves, something we do not know with confidence.”
Punggye-ri has been closed since North Korea’s self-imposed moratorium on nuclear weapons tests in 2018. With denuclearization talks stalled, however, Kim has said he no longer feels bound by that moratorium.
In 2018 North Korea removed all observation facilities, research buildings and security posts before blowing up the tunnel entrances. A small contingent of foreign media observed the demolition, but North Korea refused to allow international inspectors, leading to speculation the facilities could be restored.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism