More signs of life at North's Punggye-ri testing site
North Korea continues to conduct maintenance work at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, which the regime vowed to shut down in April 2018, according to a former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) official interviewed by Voice of America (VoA).
The test site, located in a mountainous region in the country’s remote North Hamgyong Province, was the North’s only known nuclear test site and the location of six nuclear weapons tests between October 2006 and September 2017.
In a phone interview with Voice of America on Jan. 23, Oli Hainonen, a special researcher at the U.S. Stimson Center, who served as deputy director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said satellite analysis of the test site suggests North Korea is still maintaining facilities at the location.
“They are maintaining the site in such a way that you see trails of the cars, cleaning of snow, and things like that. So, they kind of maintain the buildings in some kind of conditions,” Hainonen said.
The former IAEA deputy director observed, “It looks like that they have kind of abandoned it but kind of maintained it somehow. It's more than just simple monitoring. You don't need to have this kind of continuous procedure. It's not a big crowd of people, but quite a few buildings seem to be in use.”
North Korea appeared to destroy at least three tunnels at the Punggye-ri site, as well as observation buildings, a metal foundry and living quarters in May 2018.
Foreign journalists were invited to watch the site’s destruction. No South Korean reporters were invited to that event.
However, North Korean analysis website 38 North, which is run by the Stimson Center, observed through satellite imagery in July 2019 that the site was well-maintained by people who continued living there, as evidenced by vegetables being grown in the greenhouse area.
Jacob Bugle, a North Korea satellite imagery analyst who runs the blog AccessDPRK, wrote in September 2019 that despite the demolition of tunnel entrances used for previous tests, the tunnels themselves were not destroyed, while the tunnels that were never used in testing were not part of the public demolition.
Tests were conducted under Mount Mantap using an extensive tunnel network, which was reportedly dug by political prisoners held at the nearby Hwasong penal labor colony. The last test in September 2017 reportedly caused earthquakes of magnitude 4.1, which led to extensive damage to the tunnels.
In October 2017 testimony before the National Assembly, Nam Jae-cheol, who was head of South Korea's Meteorological Administration, warned that further tests at Punggye-ri could cause the mountain to collapse and release radioactivity into the environment.
Earlier last week, North Korea suggested it could end its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile testing. An end to the moratorium, which started in 2017, could result in future tests at the Punggye-ri site, though it remains unknown in the regime harbors other underground nuclear test sites.
Writing for the Institute for Science and International Security in May 2018, nuclear physicist and the institute’s president David Albright said he considered the shuttering of active testing at Punggye-ri was like “many disabling steps” which the North could undo after weeks or months of work.
BY MICHAEL LEE [firstname.lastname@example.org]