Satellite photos: Unclear if 5th N. Korean nuclear test imminent
May 3, 2016
The latest satellite images of North Korea’s underground test facility provide no clarity on whether the provocative country may carry out its fifth nuclear test ahead of the ruling Workers’ Party congress on Friday, a Washington-based think tank says.
Photos from April 28 show signs of sparse activity at the North’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site, but it’s difficult to tell whether that work is related to an imminent detonation or ongoing maintenance, said 38 North, a website run by Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies that monitors North Korean activities.
U.S. officials had expected the North to conduct its second nuclear test this year as leader Kim Jong Un seeks to bolster his image ahead of the first congress in 36 years. Analysts say his continuing purges of high-level officials indicate that he still has not fully consolidated power more than four years after taking over following his father’s death.
The images show “two possible vehicles or trailers as well as a few mining carts” at the site’s north portal, 38 North said. There has been recent work at spoil piles – indicating test-tunnel excavation – at the north and west portals, but it’s not possible to determine whether that’s related to mine-rail maintenance or deposits of fresh spoil.
“It is worth noting that the January 2016 nuclear test demonstrated that North Korea has the ability to slow-roll test preparations relatively unnoticed and is able to conduct a new test with little or no warning,” the report said.
No personnel have been observed at the site, according to the website.
North Korea completed three increasingly powerful nuclear tests at Punggye-ri in 2006, 2009 and 2013. In January, it conducted a fourth test that it claimed to be a hydrogen bomb – potentially much more powerful than the enriched uranium or plutonium weapons it has tested in the past – but experts have questioned that.
January’s test was followed a month later by a long-range rocket launch that prompted harsh new U.N. sanctions.
In the past two weeks, the North reportedly failed in efforts to launch three powerful mid-range missiles, but appears to have successfully fired a ballistic missiles from a submarine.