Activity at North nuke site

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Activity at North nuke site

Recent satellite imagery shows new activity at North Korea’s nuclear testing site, raising suspicions that Pyongyang is preparing a fourth nuclear test to mark an important anniversary next month.

According to the U.S. website 38 North, which specializes in observing the reclusive state’s missile and nuclear activities, imagery taken on Sept. 18 shows four large vehicles parked side by side near the entrance of a tunnel at the North’s Punggye-ri nuclear site in Kilju, North Hamgyong Province. That is the place where the North conducted its previous nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013.

Camouflage netting was also observed in the satellite imagery, possibly being used to prevent surveillance of activity at the site.

The website, run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, added that an “unusually large number of vehicles at the guardhouse checkpoint leading to the west portal” were also visible, although the purpose of such mobilization remains unclear.

The research center said a new building had been constructed in the area although its purpose was unknown as well.

The 38 North report Friday came amid growing speculation that Pyongyang may commemorate Oct. 10, the 70th anniversary of the foundation of its Workers’ Party, with dramatic events like a nuclear test or a long-range missile launch. If the North does either - or both - it will prompt neighboring nations including South Korea, Japan and possibly even China to call for tougher UN economic sanctions.

But 38 North reported it was “unlikely” that Pyongyang would fire a long-range missile on or before Oct.10, citing no signs of preparations by the North at the missile launch site in Tongchang-ri on the North’s western coast. It cited satellite imagery taken on Sept. 17.

The site, however, has not entirely ruled out the possibility of a rocket launch, saying it is “still possible” if processing of the rocket stages had been conducted “at fixed or movable buildings at the east end of the launch pad” and moved to the tower in the coming days.

When asked about the 38 North report on the new activity at the nuclear test site, Unification Ministry Jeong Joon-hee said no signs of an imminent nuclear test had been detected by Seoul in Punggye-ri, adding the government has been and will continue to monitor the area scrupulously.

Meanwhile, President Park Geun-hye sent a warning to Pyongyang that it will pay a price if it chooses to test a missile or nuclear device once again in violation of UN resolutions.

“Should the North go ahead with provocative actions that violate the UN Security Council resolutions, there will certainly be a price to be paid,” said Park in written answers to questions by Bloomberg News before embarking on a trip to New York to attend the UN General Assembly. She said Seoul had been engaged in diplomatic efforts to “prevent the North from further belligerence” by working closely with other countries, including the U.S.

Park’s message to the North comes amid heightened expectations that the two Koreas could widen inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation after the two struck a deal last month on resuming reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War and talks on other bilateral matters. Such prospects could be shattered in the event of a missile launch or nuclear test.

President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping were also expected to discuss ways to curb Pyongyang’s provocative actions during their summit at the White House on Friday, local time.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]

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