North Korea’s nuclear test site may be largely unusable due to a collapse that occurred in the wake of the sixth nuclear test last fall, according to Chinese seismologists.
North Korea tested a staged thermonuclear bomb with an explosive yield far greater than anything the country has previously tested on September 3, 2017. The blast triggered a 6.3-magnitude earthquake, which was followed eight and a half minutes later by a 4.1-magnitude tremor. At the time, there were unconfirmed reports that there had been a cave-in at the test site.
The test caused landslides that physically restructured Mt. Mantap, the location of North Korea’s nuclear testing facility. The area has experienced aftershocks for months, and there were even unverified reports that a cave-in at the test site killed a couple hundred North Korean workers.
Two new Chinese studies argue the second tremor was caused by a collapse inside the blast cavity, The Wall Street Journal and the South China Morning Post report. Some of the scientists involved in these studies stressed that additional testing at the North’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site could possibly result in “collapses in an even larger scale creating an environmental catastrophe.”
“The occurrence of the collapse should deem the underground infrastructure beneath mountain Mantap not be used for any future nuclear tests,” the abstract for one of the reports reads. Chinese scientists fear that the site has reached a state of “critical failure.”
This is not the first time China has raised concerns about North Korea’s nuclear test site. “China cannot sit and wait until the site implodes,” a Chinese researcher told the South China Morning Post in October of last year, warning of a catastrophic disaster. “If they still want to [test a nuclear device], they have to do it somewhere else.”
While Chinese scholars claim that the North’s nuclear test site has collapsed, Western scholars believe the North’s nuclear test site is, for the most part, still “fully operational.”
“North Korea’s Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site, where North Korea has conducted six acknowledged underground detonations is still, as far as we can tell, fully operational,” 38 North researchers at John Hopkins University’s U.S.-Korea Institute argued Monday. “There is no basis to conclude that the Punggye-ri nuclear test site is no longer viable for future nuclear testing.”
These experts assert that while the North portal may have been abandoned, possibly due to damages sustained during the test, the West and South portals could support additional testing.
“North Korea’s nuclear test mountain did not collapse,” Jeffrey Lewis, a North Korea expert and the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, tweeted Wednesday. He explained that while that blast cavity may have been affected, the mountain and the larger tunnel complex is likely still intact and ready for additional testing.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has said that his country will suspend nuclear testing and shut down the nuclear test site. Whether this is being done because Kim broke his nuclear test site is debatable. The correct assessment, whatever that may be, may speak volumes about Kim’s reported commitment to denuclearization.
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