North Korea Tunnel Work Could Presage New Nuclear-Test Series

North Korean soldiers march through Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang during a military parade last July. The pattern of excavation work at North Korea's nuclear-testing grounds could point to a plan to conduct more frequent underground atomic explosions, according to one new expert theory.
National Journal
Rachel Oswald
March 21, 2014, 10:11 a.m.

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 »
SUFFOLK POLL
New Survey Shows Clinton Up 9 in Pennsylvania
2 hours ago
THE LATEST

If a new poll is to be believed, Hillary Clinton has a big lead in the all-important swing state of Pennsylvania. A new Suffolk University survey shows her ahead of Donald Trump, 50%-41%. In a four-way race, she maintains her nine-point lead, 46%-37%. "Pennsylvania has voted Democratic in the past six presidential elections, going back to Bill Clinton’s first win in 1992. Yet it is a rust belt state that could be in play, as indicated by recent general-election polling showing a close race."

Source:
$500 MILLION PROJECT
Obama Library Heading to Jackson Park in Chicago
3 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"President Barack Obama has chosen Jackson Park, a lakefront park that once hosted the world’s fair on the city’s South Side, for his $500 million presidential library, according to a person familiar with the matter."

Source:
THREE NIGHTS RUNNING
Democrats Beat Republicans in Convention Ratings So Far
3 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Wednesday was the third night in a row that the Democratic convention enjoyed a ratings win over the Republican convention last week. Which might have prompted a fundraising email from Donald Trump exhorting supporters not to watch. "Unless you want to be lied to, belittled, and attacked for your beliefs, don't watch Hillary's DNC speech tonight," the email read. "Instead, help Donald Trump hold her accountable, call out her lies and fight back against her nasty attacks."

Source:
THE QUESTION
How Many VIPs Were the Secret Service Protecting in Philly Last Night?
5 hours ago
THE ANSWER

Seven, according to an official Secret Service tweet.

Source:
‘MOGUL,’ ‘DAREDEVIL’
Candidates’ Code Names Revealed
5 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

The Clintons will retain their Secret Service "code names from the last time they lived in the White House. Hillary Clinton is EVERGREEN and Bill ClintonEAGLE. Donald Trump is MOGUL, according to reports, and Melania Trump MUSE. The vice presidents get code names, too: Mike Pence is HOOSIER—a little on the nose—and his wife HUMMINGBIRD. Tim Kaine is DAREDEVIL, somewhat ambitiously. His wife's? To be determined."

Source:
×