Multiple North Korean Nuclear Tests May Be in Offing: Sensor Data

U.S. President Obama and South Korean President Park Geun-hye speak to the press in Seoul on Friday. The two leaders warned that harsh consequences would follow if North Korea carries out a fourth nuclear test, as appears increasingly likely.
National Journal
Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
April 25, 2014, 10:55 a.m.

Satel­lite im­ages taken on Wed­nes­day in­clude hints that North Korea may be pre­par­ing to det­on­ate mul­tiple nuc­le­ar devices at once.

The new sur­veil­lance pho­to­graphs re­veal “in­creased move­ment of vehicles and ma­ter­i­als near what are be­lieved to be the en­trances to two com­pleted test tun­nels” in the south­ern part of the test­ing site, said Jack Liu in a Thursday im­age ana­lys­is for 38 North, an ex­pert web­site that tracks weapon de­vel­op­ments in North Korea.

Py­ongy­ang has warned re­peatedly in re­cent weeks that it is pre­pared to con­duct a “new” kind of atom­ic test. The de­tec­ted move­ment around two dif­fer­ent tun­nels at the Punggye-ri test site could mean North Korean per­son­nel are pla­cing atom­ic devices in each tun­nel, though that is by no means cer­tain.

Re­ly­ing on com­mer­cial satel­lites to draw un­der­stand­ing of what events could be tak­ing place un­der­ground can be chal­len­ging, and long­time North Korea watch­ers are care­ful to em­phas­ize there is no way of defin­it­ively know­ing how North Korea’s next nuc­le­ar test might play out.

“One way of them demon­strat­ing a new form of test­ing would be to con­duct mul­tiple tests at one time, just like the Pakistanis did in 1998,” said Joel Wit, ed­it­or of 38 North, in a Fri­day phone in­ter­view.

He stressed, though, that he “can’t say that these pic­tures show that that is what they are do­ing. I can’t jump to that con­clu­sion.”

Jef­frey Lewis, dir­ect­or of the East Asia Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Pro­gram at the James Mar­tin Cen­ter for Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Stud­ies, in a March ana­lys­is for 38 North spec­u­lated that re­cently de­tec­ted ex­cav­a­tion work at Punggye-ri could have been to sup­port an ef­fort “to trans­form the moun­tains north and south of the site in­to com­plexes that could al­low [for] mul­tiple tests — two or more — in drifts off a single main tun­nel.”

An­oth­er way that North Korea could im­ple­ment its threat of a new kind of nuc­le­ar test would be to det­on­ate — for the first time — a device fueled by highly en­riched urani­um, in­stead of the plutoni­um it has used in the past, ex­perts say.

Liu, in his Thursday im­age ana­lys­is, also de­tec­ted the pres­ence of likely com­mand-and-con­trol vehicles at Punggye-ri’s Main Sup­port Area that could have been brought over to sup­ply se­cure com­mu­nic­a­tions between the test site and oth­er parts of North Korea. He notes that “sim­il­ar vehicles were spot­ted in the area” shortly be­fore the coun­try car­ried out its last nuc­le­ar ex­plo­sion in Feb­ru­ary 2013.

One of the fi­nal in­dic­a­tions that a nuc­le­ar test could be im­min­ent would be when North Korea seals the en­trance to a tun­nel with ce­ment or dirt. 38 North did not say it had de­tec­ted such activ­ity, but a South Korean gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial told re­port­ers on Thursday that Py­ongy­ang is be­lieved to have closed off a test tun­nel.

U.S. Pres­id­ent Obama and South Korean Pres­id­ent Park Geun-hye on Fri­day warned the North that harsh con­sequences would fol­low if it car­ried out a fourth nuc­le­ar test, the As­so­ci­ated Press re­por­ted.

An­oth­er tri­al blast would cause a “fun­da­ment­al change” in the re­gion’s se­cur­ity dy­nam­ics, prompt­ing oth­er na­tions to push to de­vel­op equal atom­ic cap­ab­il­it­ies, said Park dur­ing a joint press con­fer­ence with Obama, who will be in Seoul un­til Sat­urday.

She also in­dic­ated that mul­tina­tion­al ne­go­ti­ations aimed at achiev­ing a per­man­ent North Korean de­nuc­lear­iz­a­tion would be per­man­ently called off.

Obama warned that an­oth­er nuc­le­ar test could lead to new sanc­tions with “even more bite.”

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