A pattern of recent digging at North Korea’s nuclear-trial grounds could indicate a plan to more aggressively test atomic devices, according to a new analysis.
Commercial satellites in recent months detected signs of excavation happening around the northern side of North Korea’s Punggye-ri test site. Meanwhile, digging work has been halted on the southern side, where two suspected tunnels are thought to have been completed. Initial reports about the activity at the north side included speculation that a new tunnel could be used to house a nuclear test device.
However, Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, has a different theory.
“What if North Korea’s recent excavations are not for new tunnels that will be used only once, but represent an effort to transform the mountains north and south of the site into complexes that could allow it to conduct multiple tests — two or more — in drifts off a single main tunnel with multiple entrances,” Lewis wrote in a Thursday analysis for the expert website 38 North, which tracks weapons-related developments in North Korea.
An examination of satellite images taken of Punggye-ri’s north side — commonly known as the “West Portal” area — show multiple entrances. These entrances could each open up to their own tunnels that run alongside one another.
“An alternate hypothesis suggested by patterns of U.S., Russian, and Chinese underground nuclear testing is that, rather than parallel tunnels, North Korea may be conducting tests in drifts that branch off a main tunnel.” Lewis said. “This is how those three countries conducted underground nuclear tests.”
North Korea’s previous three atomic trial detonations all occurred as individual events, spaced years apart. Some analysts viewed them less as scientific “tests” than as political “demonstrations” to the world. Regardless of what the North was trying to achieve with its 2006, 2009, and 2013 nuclear explosions, the testing to date has been limited, said Lewis. In part, that is because Pyongyang has lacked enough fissile material to carry out a more robust testing program, he said.
However, the North is bolstering its ability to produce weapon-grade material — both plutonium and highly enriched uranium. The country last year restarted an old graphite reactor. Pyongyang has said it would use the plutonium produced by the reactor — and the highly enriched uranium generated by a separate facility — to support its nuclear-weapons program.
With more fissile material in the works, North Korea could soon have the resources it needs to embark on an effort involving more frequent testing, which the complex pattern of connected chambers could support, Lewis theorized.
Surveillance photographs taken earlier this month of the West Portal area reveal new excavation debris outside the mountain entrance on which North Korea has been working since last summer, according to a separate Thursday image analysis by 38 North, which is a project of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
However, there are no signs of preparations being made for an imminent underground explosion, concluded image experts Nick Hansen and Jack Liu.
Correction: This story has been modified to accurately reflect the facilities believed to support North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program.
What We're Following See More »
Trump, in a statement: “Based on the fact that the Democratic nominating process is totally rigged and Crooked Hillary Clinton and Deborah Wasserman Schultz will not allow Bernie Sanders to win, and now that I am the presumptive Republican nominee, it seems inappropriate that I would debate the second place finisher. ... I will wait to debate the first place finisher in the Democratic Party, probably Crooked Hillary Clinton, or whoever it may be.”
"The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration identified on Friday the makes and models of 12 million cars and motorcycles that have been recalled because of defective air bag inflators made by Japanese supplier Takata. The action includes 4.3 million Chryslers; 4.5 million Hondas; 1.6 million Toyotas; 731,000 Mazdas; 402,000 Nissans; 383,000 Subarus; 38,000 Mitsubishis; and 2,800 Ferraris. ... Analysts have said it could take years for all of the air bags to be replaced. Some have questioned whether Takata can survive the latest blow."
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson says 41 Secret Service agents have been disciplined in the fallout of an investigation over the agency's leak of personnel files. The leaker, who has resigned, released records showing that Oversight and Government Reform Chair Jason Chaffetz—who was leading an investigation of Secret Service security lapses—had applied for a job at the agency years before. The punishments include reprimands and suspension without pay. "Like many others I was appalled by the episode reflected in the Inspector General’s report, which brought real discredit to the Secret Service," said Johnson.
Mitt Romney spoke in an interview with the Wall Street Journal about his decision to challenge Donald Trump. “Friends warned me, ‘Don’t speak out, stay out of the fray,’ because criticizing Mr. Trump will only help him by giving him someone else to attack. They were right. I became his next target, and the incoming attacks have been constant and brutal.” Still, "I wanted my grandkids to see that I simply couldn’t ignore what Mr. Trump was saying and doing, which revealed a character and temperament unfit for the leader of the free world.”
"A bill to help Puerto Rico handle its $70 billion debt crisis is facing an uncertain future in the Senate. No Senate Democrats have endorsed a bill backed by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, while some are actively fighting it. ... On the Republican side, senators say they’re hopeful to pass a bill but don’t know if they can support the current legislation — which is expected to win House approval given its backing from leaders in that chamber."