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Activity at Punggye-ri continues

Satellite images of nuclear test site bolster concerns of restoration
Dec 13,2019
North Korea continues to retain a presence at its nuclear test site in Punggye-ri, according to satellite images published by a U.S. analysis website, fueling speculation of the regime’s continued nuclear ambitions amid signs of an impending missile test this month.

38 North, a North Korea analysis website run by the Washington-based Stimson Center, said in a report on Wednesday that there were signs of personnel and vehicle activity at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in North Hamgyong Province - the regime’s only known nuclear test site where it conducted numerous nuclear tests between 2006 and 2017.

Foot and vehicle tracks in the snow were detected in images captured of the site between Nov. 18 and Saturday, the report said, which validated a similar observation by 38 North from March.

The report added, however, that there were “no observable signs of activity around the closed tunnel areas,” referring to the three tunnels that Pyongyang publicly detonated in front of foreign journalists in May last year to demonstrate its commitment to denuclearization.

While not evidence of resumed nuclear activities at the site, the report jives with concerns voiced by South Korean officials who have said Pyongyang has the ability to restore Punggye-ri to operational capacity.

At its Sohae Satellite Launching Station in Tongchang-ri, North Pyongan Province, - where the North also dismantled a rocket launch stand at the beginning of negotiations last year - signs of activity were detected before Pyongyang announced last week that it had conducted a “very important” test that would change its “strategic position,” suggesting full operability of the Sohae site had been restored.

Seoul’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Park Han-ki, testified to the National Assembly in October that at least two of the tunnels used for nuclear tests at Punggye-ri could be restored, and that this could be possible within “a few weeks to a few months.”

At the time of the public detonations last year, there was much suspicion as to whether the tunnels had been demolished beyond recovery, given that the invited journalists only witnessed the entrances to the tunnels being destroyed from a distance of approximately 500 meters (1,640 feet) and were not allowed to verify how extensive the demolitions had been.

Having conducted what is believed to have been a rocket engine test at the Sohae site on Saturday, North Korea is signaling that it may test a long-range missile if no progress is achieved in its talks with Washington by the end of this year. The activities at Punggye-ri show that resuming nuclear tests may also be the recourse the regime could take if dialogue fails altogether.

With Saturday’s test, the United States has accordingly ramped up its surveillance of the North, having deployed more reconnaissance planes over the Korean Peninsula on Thursday in the latest of a series of flybys. According to Aircraft Spots, a Twitter handle tracking military aircraft worldwide, an E-9C Joint Stars plane flew 29,000 feet above Korea Thursday morning, followed by another RC-135W plane in the afternoon. The flybys marked the 10th time this year that Washington conducted such missions.

There is also speculation that the United States could conduct its own intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test in the near future in tandem with the North’s predicted provocations. The U.S. Air Force issued a notice to airmen Thursday forbidding flights near Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, something which it did before conducting tests of its LGM-30 Minuteman III ICBM in May and October.

The land-based missile has a maximum range of around 13,000 kilometers (8,078 miles) and can likely hit Pyongyang from the U.S. mainland in just 30 minutes.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK, BAEK MIN-JEONG and LEE KEUN-PYUNG [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]