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Small tremors observed near a nuclear test site in North Korea

FILE PHOTO: A North Korean flag flutters at the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia March 19, 2021. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng/File Photo

South Korea has reported a series of tiny earthquakes near North Korea’s halted nuclear test site, emphasising the region’s geological fragility as Pyongyang suggests it may resume testing for the first time since 2017.

The news: According to the Korea Meteorological Administration (KMA) in Seoul, at least four earthquakes have struck the region in the last five days, all of which occurred naturally.

  • The most recent was a 2.5-magnitude tremor that struck early Tuesday morning, some 36 kilometres (22 miles) from the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site.
  • On Monday, two 2.3 magnitude earthquakes struck the area, followed by a 3.1 magnitude earthquake on Friday.

What’s going on: Punggye-ri, located in northeast North Korea, is the country’s only known nuclear test site. North Korea conducted its most recent known weapons test in September 2017, when it detonated its sixth and biggest nuclear bomb, which it claimed was a thermonuclear weapon.

  • Experts referred to a series of tremors and landslides around the nuclear test station in the weeks following the explosion as evidence that the enormous blast had destabilised the region, which had never previously experienced natural earthquakes.
  • South Korean government analysts stated the nuclear blasts appeared to have irreversibly affected the geology of the area after one such quake in 2020, while some experts expressed concerns that radioactive pollutants could be produced if North Korea used the site again.

What they’re saying: Nuclear test-induced seismic activity is not uncommon, according to Frank Pabian, a retired analyst with the United States’ Los Alamos National Laboratory, and has been documented at other major nuclear test sites such as the Nevada Test Site in the United States and the former Soviet Union’s Semipalatinsk site in Kazakhstan.

  • “Such seismicity should not prevent the Punggye-ri nuclear test from being used again in the future,” he said. “The only difference being that any future testing would be limited to only previously unused tunnels.”

The backstory: When North Korea abandoned the site in 2018, declaring its nuclear force complete, the entrances to the tunnels were blown up in front of a select number of foreign reporters invited to witness the explosion. Outside appeals for international specialists to inspect the closure were rejected by North Korea.

  • Because of a lack of progress in talks with the United States and its allies, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has stated that he is no longer bound by the self-imposed testing moratorium, and the country hinted in January that it is considering resuming nuclear weapons or long-range ballistic missile tests.

Satellite imagery has shown no substantial indicators of activity at Punggye-ri beyond routine security patrols and maintenance since the lockdown, according to monitoring groups.

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