In the latest sign that North Korea may be preparing to resume major weapons testing, satellite imagery has shown its nuclear test site being built for the first time since it closed in 2018.
Images taken Friday of the Punggye-ri facility in the country show ‘very early signs’ of activity at the site, including the construction of a new building, the repair of another and what may be -be wood and sawdust, according to analysts at the California-based James Martin Center. for non-proliferation studies (CNS) said in a report.
“North Korea uses a substantial amount of timber at the site both for buildings and to support the tunnels. These changes have only happened in recent days,” wrote Jeffrey Lewis, a US nuclear expert and CNS professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California, in a Monday analysis of commercial satellite photos.
The development – along with reports of an impending satellite launch and preparations for a full-scale military parade – could be an ominous omen.
Although the Punggye-ri site has been closed since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear weapons and long-range missile testing during talks with the US President of the t the Donald Trump era in 2018, Kim hinted in later years that the country could resume testing of its most powerful weapons.
However, the strongest indication that this might be his chosen path came in January. Kim was quoted by state media as telling party leaders that his country would “comprehensively reconsider the confidence-building measures we have taken on our own initiative…and…will review quickly the question of the resumption of all temporarily suspended activities”.
Lewis said the construction and repair work indicates that Kim has made some kind of decision about the status of the test site.
“One possibility is that North Korea is considering bringing the test site back to a state of readiness to resume testing of nuclear explosives,” he said.
I made a .gif with @DaveSchmerler showing changes to the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in North Korea. We took construction very early, which means it’s too early to tell what they’re doing or how long it would take to get the test site back to readiness. pic.twitter.com/Th75GP1NyM
— Dr. Jeffrey Lewis (@ArmsControlWonk) March 7, 2022
Adding fuel to this speculation, South Korean officials said on Saturday they would monitor the site “even more closely”. This followed the North’s most recent missile test – allegedly a military reconnaissance satellite.
In May 2018, the North invited a small number of journalists to witness the dismantling of the Punggye-ri site, which houses the country’s only known nuclear test facilities, triggering a dramatic series of explosions that sealed off the entrances to the tunnel and destroyed some buildings in an apparent attempt to underscore the regime’s commitment to denuclearization talks with Trump.
Those talks have stalled since 2019, when negotiations collapsed over disagreements over sanctions relief and what the North would be willing to give up.
It’s unclear exactly how much work would be needed to bring the Punggye-ri site back to a level where it could be used for nuclear testing again – or how long it might take – but Lewis said it was unlikely to be anytime soon.
“The test site is several months or even years away from being ready for North Korea to conduct nuclear explosions there,” he said. “How long it would take for North Korea to resume explosives testing at the site depends on the extent of the damage to the tunnels themselves, which we don’t know for sure. It’s also possible that the North Korea resumes nuclear testing at another location.
Resuming nuclear testing would allow the North to further refine its most powerful nuclear bomb or aid it in its quest to build smaller battlefield nuclear weapons called tactical weapons, which could be deployed on its growing number of missiles that put Japan within striking range.
News of the work at Punggye-ri followed “another significant test” of a reconnaissance satellite system on Saturday – an indication that Kim may also be preparing for a satellite launch in the near future.
The rockets used to put satellites into orbit use much of the same technology used in ballistic missiles – including long-range weapons – technology that Pyongyang is banned from using under United Nations Security Council resolutions. United Nations.
Saturday’s test was the country’s ninth missile launch in 2022, as it continues an unprecedented pace of weapons testing. It also came days before Wednesday’s presidential election in South Korea and much of the world’s focus is on the war in Ukraine.
Following the conclusion of a lengthy review of U.S. North Korean policy last year, President Joe Biden repeatedly said his administration had no “hostile intent” toward Pyongyang and was ready to meet “unconditionally” for the purpose of “the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
But Kim appeared indifferent to Biden’s speech, condemning the U.S. offers as a “little trick.”
Observers say the North Korean strongman has no intention of giving up his nuclear arsenal, as he believes it is essential to his regime’s survival. Instead, he ordered his regime to redouble its efforts and prepare for a “long-term confrontation” with the United States.
In the near term, Kim will have plenty of options to test and show off her weapons, with a number of key anniversaries fast approaching.
The North has already begun preparations for an apparent military parade ahead of these important dates, according to the South Korean military, which includes the 110th birthday of Kim’s grandfather and the country’s founder, Kim Il Sung, on April 15.
The regime is known for staging shows of force on or around the dates marking every fifth or tenth anniversary, and military parades have often been used to unveil powerful new weapons.
According to an analysis of recent satellite images According to North Korea-focused website NK News on Monday, the country appears to be gearing up for a full-scale military parade – which will likely feature heavy weaponry such as missile launchers.
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