Mysterious New Digging Work Seen at North Korea Nuclear-Test Site

South Korean passengers at a Seoul train station watch television coverage of North Korea's third nuclear test on February 12, 2013. New satellite images show a marked uptick in the pace of digging of a new tunnel at the North's Punggye-ri nuclear testing grounds, an image expert said on Thursday.
National Journal
Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
Feb. 14, 2014, 9:57 a.m.

Signs of a large amount of dig­ging at North Korea’s nuc­le­ar test site can be seen in new satel­lite im­ages, though the pur­pose is not yet clear.

A “sig­ni­fic­ant ac­cel­er­a­tion in ex­cav­a­tion activ­ity” can be seen at the “West Portal” area of the Punggye-ri test­ing grounds, wrote im­age ex­pert Jack Liu in a Thursday ana­lys­is pos­ted on the spe­cial­ist web­site 38 North, which mon­it­ors de­vel­op­ments at North Korea’s nuc­le­ar weapons-re­lated sites.

Com­pared to im­ages of the nuc­le­ar test site taken in Decem­ber, “the size of the pile of spoil ex­cav­ated from a new tun­nel ap­pears to have doubled in a peri­od of a little over a month,” Liu wrote. “Spoil” refers to ex­cav­a­tion debris.

“When last viewed in early Decem­ber 2013 there were no signs of test pre­par­a­tions,” said the re­port by “38 North,” a web­site pro­ject of the U.S.-Korea In­sti­tute at Johns Hop­kins Uni­versity.

Still, it is doubt­ful, ac­cord­ing to Liu, that North Korea would use the emer­ging tun­nel for a fourth un­der­ground atom­ic ex­plo­sion, when it already has two oth­er fin­ished tun­nels ready for use in the south­ern part of the test­ing grounds.

There could be a num­ber of reas­ons for the faster dig­ging speed, the im­age ana­lyst said, such as a need to meet a dead­line for com­plet­ing the tun­nel or be­cause the rock and dirt be­came easi­er to shift.

South Korean De­fense Min­is­ter Kim Kwan-jin earli­er this week said Py­ongy­ang did not ap­pear to be plan­ning a nuc­le­ar test in the im­min­ent fu­ture, though it was tech­nic­ally ready to carry one out.

Were North Korea to make the polit­ic­al de­cision to con­duct a test, cer­tain pre­par­a­tions would likely be taken at Punggye-ri in the weeks and days be­fore­hand, such as the place­ment of cam­ou­flage net­ting over the tun­nel en­trance and the erec­tion of a satel­lite dish nearby in or­der to trans­mit tech­nic­al data from the blast site, Liu said.

There also prob­ably would be a gen­er­al up­tick in the per­son­nel activ­ity and vehicle traffic at the test site. No such in­dic­at­ors of an im­min­ent nuc­le­ar ex­plo­sion can be seen in the most re­cent pho­to­graphs, he said.

While in­ter­na­tion­al sci­ent­ists view the North’s first two atom­ic tests to have been par­tial fail­ures at best, the third nuc­le­ar blast last Feb­ru­ary was seen to be more suc­cess­ful, due to its sub­stan­tially great­er yield. De­fense spe­cial­ists say that with every test it con­ducts, Py­ongy­ang is ad­van­cing to­ward the abil­ity to build nuc­le­ar war­heads small enough for mount­ing on mis­siles.

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