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North Korea’s Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site: Test or No Test?

By
30 March 2017


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

While commercial satellite imagery of the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site from March 28 showed heightened activity, imagery from March 29 shows considerably less. At the North Portal, no vehicles or trailers are readily visible anymore, which suggests that whatever was underway over the past four days is either done or the nature of it has changed. If the activity was test related, it would suggest that preparations are complete and that a test could occur at any time. However, based on satellite imagery alone, great caution should be used in making this determination. North Korea clearly understands that the world is watching and is undoubtedly, at some level, attempting to manipulate reporting about developments at Punggye-ri. For instance, the kind of “signaling” we have seen over the past few days was not observed before either of the nuclear tests in 2016. Similar activity was observed before the 2013 test, but that was before Pyongyang fully understood what we were looking for. Furthermore, satellite imagery alone cannot provide a precise answer as to when a new test will be conducted.

Update on Activity

At the North Portal, water is likely still being pumped out of the tunnel to ensure the reliability of instrumentation and maintain the integrity of any stemming that has been installed. However, water drainage is difficult to distinguish from melting snow. Paths through the snow suggest that guards have patrolled the perimeter security fence around the North Portal. Additionally, there appears to be continued dumping of material on the tailings/spoil pile to the east. This could be related to a final cleanup of the tunnel, or may also indicate new excavation.

Figure 1. Equipment appears to have been removed from the North Portal 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.

Figure 2. Additional material has been recently dumped on the North Portal’s spoil pile.

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.

The Main Administrative Area shows the greatest change over the past couple days. Neither the personnel nor the vehicle seen on March 28 are now present, although the melted snow and disturbed earth are evidence they were there. What may be a small collection of crates or trailers is now in the main courtyard.

Figure 3. No personnel are seen in the courtyard; some possible crates or trailers remain.

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.

With the exception of one small vehicle (approximately 3.5-meters-long) at the Command Center area, no significant activity is observed elsewhere at Punggye-ri.

Figure 4. One small vehicle is seen at the Command Center 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.

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