North Korea

Experts say more North Korea nuclear tests likely as satellite images show increased tunnelling activity

The last five of Pyongyang’s six nuclear tests have been carried out under Mount Mantap at Punggye-ri in the country’s northwest

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 January, 2018, 11:52am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 January, 2018, 10:06pm

North Korea has stepped up tunnelling at its main nuclear test site, a US think tank said, even as tensions cool on the peninsula following the resumption of long-stalled inter-Korean dialogue.

Satellite images showed increased activity at the Punggye-ri site, with mining carts and personnel frequently visible, and excavation waste piles growing, the respected 38North website said late on Thursday.

“These activities underscore North Korea’s continued efforts to maintain the Punggye-ri site’s potential for future nuclear testing,” it said.

The last five of Pyongyang’s six nuclear tests have been carried out under Mount Mantap at Punggye-ri in the country’s northwest, all of them at the North Tunnel.

After a series of small earthquakes in the area, 38North said last October that the site may be suffering from the geological condition “Tired Mountain Syndrome”.

The syndrome refers to the effect of below-ground nuclear blasts on the surrounding rock, which is extensively fractured and becomes increasingly permeable.

The latest pictures indicated the North Tunnel was “dormant” with water draining from its entrance, but that “tunnel excavation has been stepped up at the West Portal”.

US deployed B-2 stealth bombers to Guam as sensitive talks between North and South Korea began

Elsewhere at the site there was unusual activity with some 100-120 personnel lined up in formation in the courtyard, their purpose unknown.

The images were taken in December, soon before North Korean leader Kim Jong-un gave a New Year speech warning US President Donald Trump of a “nuclear button” on his desk, while also offering to hold talks with Seoul.

The olive branch led to the first official dialogue between the two Koreas in more than two years on Tuesday, and an agreement for Pyongyang to send a delegation to next month’s Winter Olympics in the South. However it was revealed on Thursday that the US Air Force had quietly deployed three stealth B-2 Spirit bombers to Guam this week as the discussions between the Koreans got underway.

The apparent rapprochement came after months of confrontation, during which Pyongyang carried out multiple missile tests and by far its biggest nuclear detonation to date.

Following the talks, Russian President Vladimir Putin praised Kim as a “mature politician” with a formidable arsenal, but also urged him to defuse international tensions over Pyongyang’s controversial nuclear programme.

“I believe Mr Kim Jong-un has won this round,” Putin told Russian journalists on Thursday.

“He has achieved his strategic task – he has a nuclear warhead, and a global-range missile with a range of up to 13,000km (8,000 miles), which can now reach practically any point of the globe, at any rate any point on the territory of its potential enemy.”

“He is an absolutely competent and already mature politician,” the Russian president said.

However, Putin added that it was in Kim’s “interest to harmonise, calm the situation”.

The Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang next month have long been overshadowed by geopolitical tensions, with the North repeatedly test-firing missiles it says are capable of reaching the US mainland, and detonating its most powerful nuclear device to date.

North Korea made no promises on its weapons programme at the recent talks, and lashed out when asked about denuclearisation by South Korean journalists, saying it was not up for discussion.

“The target of all our nuclear and hydrogen bombs and ICBMs and all other sophisticated weapons is the US,” the North’s chief delegate Ri Son-gwon said.

Additional reporting by The Washington Post