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North Korean Nuclear Test: Imagery Shows No Indicators

By
07 January 2016


A 38 North exclusive with analysis by Joseph S. Bermudez Jr.

The North Korean announcement yesterday that the “…first H-bomb test was successfully conducted in the DPRK at 10:00 on Wednesday, Juche 105 (2016)” has led to speculation about the capabilities of North Korea’s nuclear program, whether, in fact, it was a test of an H-bomb, whether there were any indications of an impending test or afterwards, where the test had occurred. Commercial satellite imagery can help provide answers to the last two questions.

Figure 1. Overview of the portals at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site.

(November 2, 2015; Google Earth)

(November 2, 2015; Google Earth)

Test Location

Some uncertainty still exists about the location of the 2016 nuclear test. For example, the US Geological Survey has reported that the epicenter for the event was at 41.305 N, 129.049 E, approximately 4,000 meters northwest of the North Portal. The January 6, 2016 satellite image of the area shows no signs of landslides, rock falls, etc.

The South Korean Meteorological Administration has reported that the epicenter for the event was at 41.30 N, 129.09 E, approximately 2,100 meters northwest of the North Portal. As with the USGS reported location the January 6, 2016 image of the area shows no signs of landslides, rock falls, etc.

Figure 2. Overview of reported epicenters by the USGS (41.305 N, 129.049 E) and ROK (41.30 N, 129.09 E).

(November 2, 2015; Google Earth)

(November 2, 2015; Google Earth)

Based on the most recent analysis of the events it is almost certain that the test device was located in the North Portal area (previously known as the West Portal), where the North Koreans had been excavating for over a year. South Korean sources report that the test device was most probably located in a “supplemental tunnel,” which would make sense since two of North Korea’s previous tests were conducted in this area and the branch tunnels for those were undoubtedly destroyed.

Satellite Imagery Analysis

Commercial satellite imagery of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site from January 1 and January 6, 2016 (the latter taken just 40 minutes after the detonation) was analyzed for indicators such as landslides, rock falls, vehicular traffic, instrumentation vans and cable spools. Analysis of imagery of the suspected site of the test, the North Portal, used for tests in 2009 and 2013, only shows increased road scarring that could be the result of increased vehicular traffic before the test. Additionally, it appears that a number of mining carts have been collected outside the tunnel, on the northeast side of the parking area. These carts may have been used to bring in test device and monitoring equipment, and pulled out afterwards to avoid being damaged or obstructing access.

Figure 3. North Portal on January 1, 2016.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2016. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2016. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved.

Figure 4. North Portal on January 6, 2016.

Image © 2016 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Image © 2016 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Increased Activity at the Base Command and Control Center

Imagery shows an increased level of activity at the Punggye-ri nuclear test facility Headquarters and Command Center at Yongam-dong, located approximately 5.8 km south of the test facility. The courtyard of the walled compound is clear of snow. Several vehicles are present and the roof of the main building shows signs that it is being heated. Typically, few, if any vehicles are present, at this location. Additionally, the security headquarters, checkpoint, and the road connecting them to the headquarters and command compound are clear of show and show signs of maintenance, suggesting a higher than normal level of traffic.

Figure 5. Location of Punggye-ri Headquarters and Command Center.

(November 2, 2015; Google Earth)

(November 2, 2015; Google Earth)

Figure 6. Activity at the Punggye-ri Headquarters and Command Center.

Image © 2016 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Image © 2016 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

No Activity at Other Areas of the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site

Unlike the run-up to the 2013 nuclear test, there appeared to be few sights of test-related activities. This may have been the result of: 1) a deliberate North Korean effort to conceal preparations, for example, conducting them under cloud cover or at night or by conducting them slowly over many months; 2) the inability of commercial satellite imagery to provide regular coverage of the site during the weeks leading up to the detonation; or 3) the available imagery from January 1 and just after the test would in any case not show much activity in the immediate pre and post-test phases.

Overview of Portal Activity

South Portal

With the exception of a small group people or motorcycles on the road between the Main Support Area and the South Portal, which has been under construction since 2009, there is no significant activity noted. It remains the same as it was seen in December 2015.

Figure 7. South Portal on January 1 and January 6, 2016.

Image left includes material Pleiades © CNES 2016. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. Image right © 2016 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Main Support Area

Approximately a dozen people are visible walking in the courtyards of the Main Support Area in both images. In, however, the January 6, 2016 image there is a small grouping of vehicles/trailers is located in the northern courtyard.

Figure 8. Main Support Area on January 1 and January 6, 2016.

Image left includes material Pleiades © CNES 2016. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. Image right © 2016 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

West Portal

No activity at the new West Portal is noted in either image and it remains the same as it was seen in December 2015. [Add link]

Figure 9. No activity at the West Portal on January 1 and January 6, 2016.

Image left includes material Pleiades © CNES 2016. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. Image right © 2016 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

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