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Continued Activity at North Korea’s Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site

By
24 February 2017


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

Recent commercial satellite imagery of North Korea’s Punggye-ri Nuclear Test facility shows continued low-level activity at many locations within the installation. In particular, the shifting of supplies and equipment as well as additional changes in the texture and pattern of small sections of the tailings pile at the North Portal indicate continuing work inside the test tunnels. These activities suggest continued preparation and maintenance of this portal for use in a new nuclear test. Should the decision be made to do so, North Korea could probably move forward with a nuclear test in short order but it remains unclear when such a test might take place.

North Portal

Commercial satellite imagery from February 18 shows that the location of equipment or supplies adjacent to the support building immediately south of the North Portal has shifted repeatedly since October 2016. Combined with changes in the texture and pattern of small sections of the tailings pile, these activities suggest continued preparation and maintenance of this portal for use in a new nuclear test. Should the decision be made to do so, North Korea could probably move forward with a nuclear test in short order but it remains unclear when such a test might take place.

Figure 1. Supplies and equipment have shifted near the support building at the North Portal.

 Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2017. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.


Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2017. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Figure 2. Changes can be seen to texture and patterns of the spoil.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2017. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2017. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

West Portal

In the February 18 imagery, melted snow cover on the tailings pile reveals what appears to be small changes in texture and pattern over the past three months. This suggests that minor excavation has likely taken place at this portal. It is unclear whether this activity is for maintenance or deeper excavation of the tunnel, although the former is more likely. The probable mining carts that have been observed at the base of the tailings pile over the past three months do not appear to have moved.

Figure 3. Small changes to the spoil suggest continued tunnel excavation.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2017. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2017. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Main Support Area and South Portal

The Main Administrative Area is clear of snow, revealing the presence of a sizeable collection of supplies or equipment in the northern courtyard. The nature and purpose of these supplies or equipment is unclear.

The South Portal is not clearly visible in the February 18 imagery due to heavy shadows.

Figure 4. Equipment or supplies seen in the northern courtyard of the Main Support Area.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2017. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2017. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Command Center Area

A single passenger vehicle is present in the Command Center’s courtyard. At the guard barracks to the east, the construction of a small building (likely a shed) appears to be complete.

Figure 5. A single passenger vehicle is parked in the courtyard of the Command Center.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2017. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2017. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Figure 6. Construction of a small building near the guard barracks appears complete.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2017. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2017. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

 

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