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Update on Preparations for a Possible Third Nuclear Test at Punggye-ri: Is a Detonation Imminent?

By
25 January 2013


A 38 North exclusive with analysis by Jack Liu.

Summary

North Korea’s public pronouncements in reaction to a United Nations Security Council Resolution tightening sanctions against Pyongyang have heightened speculation that a nuclear detonation at the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility is imminent. Analysis of new satellite imagery from January 23, 2013 and previous images dating back a month reveal that the site appears to be at a continued state of readiness that would allow the North to move forward with a test in a few weeks or less once the leadership in Pyongyang gives the order. Snowfall and subsequent clearing operations as well as tracks in the snow reveal ongoing activity at buildings and on roadways near the possible test tunnel. A photo from January 4 identifies a group of personnel, possibly troops or security guards, in formation in the yard of the administrative area near the test tunnel entrance, perhaps to greet visiting officials or for some other more routine purpose.

Imagery from December 24 identifies a new pile of material located near the command bunker in the same area. The purpose of this material remains unclear and there are a variety of possible explanations. One is that it is intended for stemming or sealing the tunnel in preparation for a detonation. In a photo from January 23, the size of the pile appears to have diminished. If the material is intended for stemming, that could indicate such an operation may be underway in preparation for a detonation.

Analysis

Satellite imagery reveals continued activity at the area near the possible test tunnel entrance through the appearance of bare ground and open roads. There was significant snowfall in November 2012, and the area has been cleared in the dead of winter, indicating the intent to maintain site readiness.

Figure 1. Active Buildings near Southern Tunnel Entrance

(Note: South is up in all images)

A close-up of a December 24 GeoEye satellite image shows an apparent pile of material in the yard of the main administrative buildings near the entrance to the possible command bunker.  (The presence of a bus, probably used to transport personnel working at the site, is another indicator of continued activity.) The purpose of that material remains unclear. One possible explanation is that it is intended for “stemming” or sealing the tunnel in preparation for a detonation.

Figure 2. Possible Pile of Material to Stem Tunnel in Preparation of a Third Nuclear Test

Satellite imagery from January 4, 2013 provides another indicator of continued activity and readiness at the site. Thirty or more personnel, possibly soldiers or security guards, can be seen in formation in the same area. They may be there for special duty, for example to greet visiting officials, or for some other more routine purpose.

Figure 3. VIP Visit? Test Site Personnel Seen in Formation

Finally, satellite imagery from January 23 shows that the pile of material in the yard of the administrative area has shrunk. If this material is intended for stemming, one possible explanation is that operations have begun to seal the test tunnel. This image also provides the clearest view of the tunnel entrance to date. Roads to the entrance continue to remain clear.

Figure 4. Pile of Possible Stemming Material Has Shrunk

This article was made possible in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s).

Reader Feedback

31 Responses to “Update on Preparations for a Possible Third Nuclear Test at Punggye-ri: Is a Detonation Imminent?”

  1. […] a direct threat to our people.”  His comments echo recent satellite analysis published by 38 North, which confirmed that the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility remains in a “continued state of […]

  2. […] poses a direct threat to our people.”  His comments echo recent satellite analysis published by 38 North, which confirmed that the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility remains in a “continued state of […]

  3. […] Korea today conducted its third nuclear weapons test at its test site at Punggye-ri in the country’s north, coming in the wake of its successful long-range rocket launch in December […]

  4. […] del primo stadio − un Unha-3 − su cui è disponibile un’ampia documentazione tecnica (qui e qui). La tempistica è quindi molto coerente con l’intenzione di arrivare in tempi brevi a disporre […]

  5. […] 38 North published this piece a couple of days ago […]

  6. […] Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility, where the regime may be about to carry out a new nuclear test in defiance of international pressure, doesn’t appear to be featured on the map at the […]

  7. […] en passant par… les camps de concentration Nord Coréens (Goulag 18 et 22) sans oublier un centre de recherche nucléaire et autres joyeusetés […]

  8. […] écoles en passant par… les camps de concentration Nord Coréens (Goulag 18 et 22) sans oublier un centre de recherche nucléaire et autres joyeusetés […]

  9. […] Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility, where the regime may be about to carry out a new nuclear test in defiance of international pressure, doesn’t appear to be featured on the map at the […]

  10. […] Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility, where the regime may be about to carry out a new nuclear test in defiance of international pressure, doesn’t appear to be featured on the map at the […]

  11. […] Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility, where the regime may be about to carry out a new nuclear test in defiance of international pressure, doesn’t appear to be featured on the map at the […]

  12. […] Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility, where the regime may be about to carry out a new nuclear test in defiance of international pressure, doesn’t appear to be featured on the map at the […]

  13. […] Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility, where the regime may be about to carry out a new nuclear test in defiance of international pressure, doesn’t appear to be featured on the map at the […]

  14. […] à une centaine de kilomètre au nord de la capitale nord-coréenne. Même le site de Punggye-ri, dans le nord du pays, où le régime serait en train de travailler à de nouveaux tests nucléaires apparaît sur la carte, au bout de la bien nommée Nuclear Test Road, (route des tests nucléaires, […]

  15. […] Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility, where the regime may be about to carry out a new nuclear test in defiance of international pressure, doesn’t appear to be featured on the map at the […]

  16. […] Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility, where the regime may be about to carry out a new nuclear test in defiance of international pressure, doesn’t appear to be featured on the map at the […]

  17. […] Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility, where the regime may be about to carry out a new nuclear test in defiance of international pressure, doesn’t appear to be featured on the map at the […]

  18. […] Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility, where the regime may be about to carry out a new nuclear test in defiance of international pressure, doesn’t appear to be featured on the map at the […]

  19. […] Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility, where the regime may be about to carry out a new nuclear test in defiance of international pressure, doesn’t appear to be featured on the map at the […]

  20. […] Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility, where the regime may be about to carry out a new nuclear test in defiance of international pressure, doesn’t appear to be featured on the map at the […]

  21. […] Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility, where the regime may be about to carry out a new nuclear test in defiance of international pressure, doesn’t appear to be featured on the map at the […]

  22. […] Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility, where the regime may be about to carry out a new nuclear test in defiance of international pressure, doesn’t appear to be featured on the map at the […]

  23. […] Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility, where the regime may be about to carry out a new nuclear test in defiance of international pressure, doesn’t appear to be featured on the map at the […]

  24. […] американские СМИ сообщили об э том со ссылками на воскресное заявление американского университета Джона […]

  25. […] a direct threat to our people.”  His comments echo recent satellite analysis published by 38 North, which confirmed that the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility remains in a “continued state of […]

  26. Andrea Berger says:

    Likely just coincidence, unrelated, but still interesting that the picture of the group of people at the site is taken on the same day that the farewell reception was held in Pyongyang for “scientists, technicians, workers and officials who contributed to the successful launch of satellite Kwangmyongsong 3-2″ (see KCNA, http://bit.ly/X7s8he). Sent the hundreds of personnel back to their respective research facilities in buses.

  27. North Korea is the mouse that roared. Only lunatics there would dare threaten the west.

  28. A Person says:

    How can you tell that that is a bus in Fig. 2?

    And which way is the formation standing in the current photo orientation? It is difficult to make out which are the heads and which are feet–so hard to tell if photo is in upside down orientation.

  29. Cap says:

    Myk Foxtrot is correct re sun angle. However, note shape of shadow different in later photo. Has changed from rounded to jagged. I is hard to envision an unchanged pile of material casting a significantly more jagged shadow at higher sun angles (though with lowering angles, it is easy to imagine). Evidence of changing shape?

  30. Myk Foxtrot says:

    Pile of stemming material has not shrunk. Sat Photo 1/23/13 taken at different time of the day. Tree and antenea shadows are shorter than in photo taken 1/4/13.

  31. […] Kaechon county. Meanwhile, in structures of another sort, NK watchers believe they have found the site at Punggye-ri of the imminent third nuclear test of which Pyongyang has warned. Finally, almost as a comic coda to a busy week, Pyongyang threatened to nuke […]

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Credit for photo of young North Korean girl: T.M. All rights reserved, used with permission.