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North is at work near nuclear site

Satellite images show up to 100 people and vehicle at Punggye-ri
Mar 31,2017
New satellite imagery shows heightened activity at North Korea’s key nuclear test site as Pyongyang appears to be preparing for a sixth nuclear test, with as many as 100 people spotted in its main administrative area.

Such a gathering has not been seen since Jan. 4, 2013, which was followed by Pyongyang’s third nuclear test on Feb. 12, according to the North Korea monitoring website 38 North, run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

The website said satellite imagery taken on March 28 of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in Kilju County, North Hamgyong Province, show there was one vehicle and a contingent of 70 to 100 people “standing in formation or watching in the courtyard” of the administrative area.

Pointing out that North Koreans are aware when commercial satellites are passing overhead, the analysis by 38 North continued, “The fact that these formations can be seen suggests that Pyongyang is sending a political message that the sixth nuclear test will be conducted soon.”

Imagery also showed continued pumping of water out of the North Portal and removal and dumping of material east of the portal. A vehicle or equipment trailer was also moved from the front of the north portal.

The South Korean government on Thursday said it is also prepared to take “speedy punitive measures” against the North should it carry out another nuclear test.

“As being analyzed in the media, South Korea and the United States are cooperating to track and evaluate [a sixth nuclear test],” a spokesman of the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said Thursday. “We are not ruling out the possibility that [North Korea] may conduct a kind of nuclear test different from any in the past.”

The military here has assessed that another nuclear test can happen at any time upon the command of the North Korean leadership.

This comes as Washington is taking a hardline stance against Pyongyang, and the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday passed three bipartisan bills against North Korea, imposing harsher sanctions on Pyongyang, condemning its ICBM development and relisting it as a state sponsor of terrorism.

It also approved a resolution urging China to cease its retaliatory measures against South Korea over the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system.

“Earlier this month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the State Department is considering a range of measures to respond to Kim Jong-un’s dangerous provocations in the region,” said Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the committee, ahead of the passage of the bills. “A good place to start is better enforcement of existing sanctions … That is why the committee is taking steps today to target these front companies and enablers that fund the Kim [Jong-un] regime’s nuclear program and human rights abuses.”

“Our government holds in regard that the U.S. Congress expressed its strong willingness to resolve North Korea issues, including its nuclear problem,” Cho June-hyuck, spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a briefing in Seoul on Thursday.

He also responded to the likelihood that North Korea may conduct another nuclear test or launch an ICBM soon, possibly to coincide with the summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping next week, or other upcoming key dates for North Korea such as its Supreme People’s Assembly meeting on April 11, the 105th anniversary of founder Kim Il Sung’s birth on April 15 or the 85th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army on April 25.

“Through the ironclad ROK-U.S. alliance and its extended deterrence, our government will maintain a military defense posture,” said Cho, adding that punitive measures for such acts could include “a UN Security Council resolution and unilateral sanctions of major countries, that the North Korean regime with find difficult to endure.”

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]