Work at North Korea’s nuclear test site appears to have stopped as Pyongyang considers talks with South Korea and the U.S.
North and South Korea will meet for high-level talks next week to prepare for a major inter-Korean summit expected to precede a meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Seoul believes that these meetings are an opportunity to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, but it is unclear if Pyongyang feels the same way.
Interestingly, North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site is now quiet, according to recent satellite images collected by 38 North researchers.
“Commercial satellite imagery of North Korea’s Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site from mid-March 2018 suggests that there has been a significant slowdown in tunneling and a reduced presence of related personnel at the site when compared to just two weeks earlier,” a 38 North analysis produced by Frank V. Pabian, Joseph S. Bermudez, and Jack Liu revealed.
“Imagery from March 17 showed no evidence of tunneling operations or the presence of any personnel or vehicles at any of the support areas including those near the Command Center,” the report, released Friday, explained. “This is an important development given efforts to establish high-level meetings between the United States, South Korea and North Korea. However, whether this is just a temporary development or whether it will continue over time is unclear.”
North Korea has conducted six nuclear tests at the Punggye-ri site. In the wake of the most recent test in September, North Korea began tunneling. The North tunnel, which may have been damaged during the test, appeared to have been abandoned. However, work continued at the West Portal. Continued activity and personnel increases “underscore North Korea’s continued efforts to maintain the Punggye-ri site’s potential for future nuclear testing,” the three 38 North researchers concluded in January.
Work appears to have stopped at the test site in early to mid-March.
The shift roughly coincides with a visit by South Korean diplomats to Pyongyang for a meeting with Kim and the revelation that not only does Kim want to meet Trump, but that the president has agreed to do so.
It is, however, difficult to know North Korea’s true intentions, as it is one of the most challenging intelligence targets on the planet. North Korea has intentionally deceived the international community time and time again, lying about its intent to denuclearize. A pause at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site could also signal that the North is ready to conduct another test.
In fact, South Korea’s spy agency — the National Intelligence Service — argued immediately after the sixth nuclear test, which involved the test of a staged thermonuclear bomb, that North Korea could conduct another test “at any time.” In the same New Year’s speech where Kim proposed dialogue with South Korea, the young dictator also called for the mass production and rapid deployment of nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles.
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