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Spotted: Construction at N. Korean nuclear test site for first time since 2018

FILE PHOTO: A North Korean flag flutters on top of a 160-metre tower in North Korea's propaganda village of Gijungdong, in this picture taken from the Tae Sung freedom village near the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), inside the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, South Korea, April 24, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo

For the first time since it was shuttered in 2018, satellite footage indicates work at North Korea’s nuclear testing site, analysts said on Tuesday, as a US intelligence report warned the regime could conduct major weapons tests this year.

The news: Experts at the California-based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) said in a report that images captured by a commercial satellite on Friday showed very early signs of activity at the Punggye-ri site, including construction of a new building, repair of another building, and what appears to be lumber and sawdust.

  • According to the article, the building and maintenance operations imply that North Korea has made some choice concerning the state of the test site.
  • In January, North Korea conducted a series of missile tests, including the largest since 2017, and looks to be ready to launch a spy satellite.
  • International monitors have also observed that the North’s primary nuclear reactor site at Yongbyon looks to be operational, with the potential to produce nuclear weapons fuel.
  • The US Directorate of National Intelligence (DNI) indicated in its annual Worldwide Threat Assessment that North Korea’s missile launches could pave the way for a return to intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and nuclear bomb tests this year.
  • Although the report did not name Punggye-ri, it did state that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un remained determined to increasing the country’s nuclear arsenal.

What’s going on: Since North Korea placed a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear weapons tests in 2018, Punggye-ri has been closed. With denuclearization talks delayed since 2019, Kim has stated that he no longer feels obliged by the moratorium.

  • North Korea announced at the time that it was using explosives to close the site’s tunnels, shut its entrances, and remove all observation structures, research buildings, and security posts. It allowed a few foreign journalists to witness the demolition but not international inspectors, leading to concerns that the facilities could be reconstructed.
  • The National Security Council in South Korea, which will pick a new president on Wednesday, stated on Sunday that it was paying special attention to Yongbyon and Punggye-ri, without explaining.
  • The alterations at Punggye-ri, according to CNS analysts, occurred only in the last few days, and it’s still unclear what’s being created or why.
  • One possibility is that North Korea intends to reopen the test site in order to begin nuclear bomb testing, according to the report.
  • The test site, according to CNS analysts, is still months, if not years, away from being ready for new nuclear explosions.

In addition: North Korea’s sole known nuclear test site is Punggye-ri. From 2006 to 2017, it conducted six nuclear weapons tests in tunnels at the site. Although geological instability appears to be the reason of North Korea’s most recent and largest nuclear test, which has since resulted in many small earthquakes, analysts and US intelligence officials believe the site might be utilised again.

  • Lieutenant Colonel Marty Meiners, a Pentagon spokesperson, declined to comment on intelligence or commercial imagery analysis.
  • The US claims it is willing to negotiate without conditions, while North Korea says the US and its allies must first end their “hostile policies”.
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