Nuclear test preparation spotted

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Nuclear test preparation spotted

North Korea is showing movement toward what could be final preparations for a fifth nuclear test ahead of its ruling party’s congress next month, according to Seoul officials, as they traced an abnormally high volume of movement at its Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site.

Two to three times the number of vehicles, personnel and equipment transfers was spotted at the Punggye Nuclear Test Site in Kilju County, North Hamgyong Province compared to the previous month, according to multiple South Korean government officials on Sunday.

An intelligence source added, “While it may be backlash in response to the international community’s sanctions against the North, we are paying close attention because it could be the final stages of preparations for another nuclear test.”

The North Korean Workers’ Party’s 7th Congress, to be held in early May, is the first of its kind in more than three decades, and there are growing concerns that Pyongyang is preparing additional military actions to coincide with this event, which will be an occasion for the isolationist regime’s leader Kim Jong-un to consolidate his power.

In March, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution imposing the toughest-ever sanctions on North Korea for conducting a fourth nuclear test in January and a long-range missile test the following month, both in violation of international regulations.

Some analysts say that North Korea has a high likelihood of conducting a fifth nuclear test later this month, or that Pyongyang may again try to launch its mid-range Musudan ballistic missile, after its failure to do so on Friday.

South Korean and U.S. defense officials said that Pyongyang’s launch of a new intermediate-range missile from a mobile launcher on Friday morning, meant to celebrate Kim Il Sung’s birthday, ended in failure.

Military officials here said that North Korea was believed to have fired a Musudan missile from a transporter erector launcher, a missile-launching vehicle, from its eastern port city of Wonsan toward the East Sea. The Musudan missile has a range of around 3,500 kilometers (2,175 miles), which could potentially hit South Korea, Japan and as far as Guam. Satellite imagery shows that North Korea is looking to produce more plutonium for nuclear weapons, according to the U.S. website monitoring Pyongyang, 38 North, which cited imagery taken last Monday at the Yongbyon nuclear facility. The website 38 North, run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, said Friday that an image taken on April 11 at the Yongbyon nuclear facility shows a railroad flatcar at its radiochemical laboratory complex, where the North separates weapons-grade plutonium from nuclear reactor waste. According to the website, the flatcar was loaded with what appeared to be four rectangular tanks or casks, indicating that North Korea may be conducting a reprocessing campaign to separate more plutonium for weapons.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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