‘Increased Activity’ Seen at North Korean Nuke-Test Site: Report

A man watches a television report on North Korea's third nuclear test at the Seoul Railway station in February 2013. The pace of preparations has picked up for the country's anticipated fourth atomic trial, according to two analyses of new satellite photographs.
National Journal
Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
April 28, 2014, 10:34 a.m.

Com­mer­cial satel­lites have picked up fresh signs of pre­par­a­tions by North Korea for an ex­pec­ted fourth nuc­le­ar test, ac­cord­ing to two ex­pert im­age ana­lyses.

Satel­lite pho­tos taken three days ago con­firm “a fur­ther in­crease of activ­ity at North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuc­le­ar test site, likely re­lated to pre­par­a­tions for an un­der­ground nuc­le­ar test,” con­cludes a Sunday as­sess­ment by the ex­pert web­site 38 North.

38 North im­age ana­lysts Nick Hansen and Jack Liu re­port that a num­ber of con­tain­ers and crates can be seen close to the tun­nel en­trances of the site’s “South Portal” area. Some of these crates and boxes ap­peared to have been “moved in­to the tun­nels,” based on a com­par­is­on of pho­tos dat­ing back to April 19, the ex­perts said.

“Of par­tic­u­lar in­terest has been the rap­id in­crease of ma­ter­i­als near the en­trance of the west­ern­most tun­nel in the South Portal area,” reads the ana­lys­is by 38 North, a pro­ject of the U.S.-Korea In­sti­tute at Johns Hop­kins Uni­versity. “No crates or boxes were present on April 19 but by April 25, up to nine con­tain­ers can be seen near its en­trance.”

In a sep­ar­ate Fri­day ana­lys­is of com­mer­cial satel­lite pho­tos snapped between April 23 and April 25, the In­sti­tute for Sci­ence and In­ter­na­tion­al Se­cur­ity notes the de­tec­tion of pos­sible cam­ou­flage net­ting over one of the South Portal tun­nel en­trances.

“This net­ting could sug­gest that the next test would be at this portal and North Korea is try­ing to shield something from view,” wrote IS­IS im­age ex­perts Dav­id Al­bright and Ser­ena Kelle­her-Ver­gantini.

The 38 North ana­lysts say they have yet to see any of the tun­nel en­trances be­ing sealed off with con­crete or dirt in pre­par­a­tion for an im­min­ent atom­ic blast.

The web­site noted its pre­dic­tion from last week — that Py­ongy­ang would not be ready to carry out a nuc­le­ar test be­fore U.S. Pres­id­ent Obama con­cluded his two-day vis­it to South Korea on Sat­urday — has proven to be cor­rect. By con­trast, the South Korean de­fense min­istry told re­port­ers on Thursday that its in­tel­li­gence in­dic­ated the North had placed a nuc­le­ar device and det­on­at­or in one of the tun­nels and closed it off.

An im­port­ant clue that a nuc­le­ar blast could be close at hand would be “an end to activ­ity at the test site,” 38 North said. “Just be­fore the 2013 det­on­a­tion, per­son­nel, equip­ment and vehicles were cleared from the area, only to re­turn a few days later.”

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