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
Add to Briefcase
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.”

What We're Following See More »
FBI To Investigate New Clinton Emails
29 minutes ago
TO AIR OCT. 31 & NOV. 1
Stein, Johnson to Participate in PBS Candidate Forum
51 minutes ago

It was announced on Friday that Gary Johnson and Jill Stein will participate in a candidate's forum, to be filmed live on Oct. 31 and air in two parts. The forum will air on PBS's Tavis Smiley. Additionally, there will be a 30 minute discussion available exclusively online with questions selected from social media.

Obama: Michelle Will Never Run for Office
2 hours ago
North Dakota Pipeline Protests Turn Violent
3 hours ago

The protest over the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline turned violent overnight as the police and National Guard sought to remove the protesters, surrounding them with assault vehicles and officers in riot gear. The law enforcement officers used pepper spray and fired bean bags for more than six hours. In response, the protesters "lit debris on fire and threw Molotov cocktails in retreat." One woman pulled out a gun and fired at officers, narrowly missing before being arrested. The protesters claim the pipeline would be constructed on land belonging to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

House Leadership Elections Slated for Nov. 15
4 hours ago

The House has scheduled leadership votes for Nov. 15, the day after members return from their election recess. "Since mid-September, members of the House Freedom Caucus have weighed whether they should ask leadership to push back the elections so they can see how House Speaker Paul Ryan performs at the end of the year," but leaders don't seem inclined to grant their request.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.