North seems to be restoring Punggye-ri tunnel
North Korea is restoring a tunnel to a nuclear test site it demolished in 2018, raising the specter of a nuclear test soon, a nonproliferation expert has written.
Writing for the Open Nuclear Network (ONN), a nuclear weapons risk mitigation program run by the Vienna-based One Earth Foundation, ONN senior fellow and former United Nations North Korea panel expert Katsuhisa Furukawa said the North is in the process of reactivating some parts of its mountainous nuclear weapons test site in Punggye-ri, North Hamgyong Province.
Commercial satellite imagery show “signs of increasing activities” since last December, especially at the southern access tunnel, or South Portal, of Punggye-ri, according to Furukawa’s report, which ONN released Monday.
“These developments clearly show that the DPRK has reactivated, or is in the process of reactivating, some parts of the Punggye-ri nuclear weapon test site, especially the South Portal and the main administrative area,” he wrote, referring to the North by the acronym for its official name, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
He noted that the restoration work includes probable restoration of one of the four former test tunnels, specifically, one that had been built but not previously used for testing.
The Punggye-ri nuclear test site has remained almost inactive since May 2018, when North Korea demolished all four portals or tunnels in a much-publicized event witnessed by foreign media allowed into the country to do so.
Concerns are growing, however, that the North’s ICBM tests in February and March might have been precursors to a nuclear test by the regime, final proof that its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and longer-range missile tests, which started in late 2017, is definitely scrapped.
Pyongyang has carried out six known nuclear tests since 2006, with the last test being conducted at the Punggye-ri testing site in North Hamgyong Province in September 2017.
Satellite imagery in recent months shows that the regime could be working to repair the test site.
According to unnamed South Korean military and intelligence sources, the North is cutting a shortcut into one of the tunnels leading into the mountainous underground site.
“(The North) abruptly stopped its initial construction work to restore the entrance to Tunnel 3, and it is digging up the side (of the tunnel),” the source said. “In this way, it seems like it will be possible to restore (the facilities) in a month.”
Furukawa agreed in his report with the South Korean intelligence assessment, writing, “Analysis of available satellite imagery is consistent with this hypothesis, indicating that the DPRK’s excavation efforts have likely started in order to restore the South Portal for use in an upcoming nuclear weapon test.”
The nonproliferation expert made observations similar to the ones made by the California-based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in early March, which told VOA it analyzed satellite images of North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear test site in North Hamgyong Province and found construction of new buildings and repairs of existing buildings.
Furukawa also found indications of construction and repairs at the site in his satellite imagery analysis, noting “increased vehicle traffic” and accumulated soil piles, especially near the secondary entrance to the South Portal.
“The DPRK has very likely already started its efforts to restore the secondary entrance to the South Portal or establish a new entrance nearby,” he wrote.
BY MICHAEL LEE [email@example.com]