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
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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.

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