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The Games People Play: Has the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site Transitioned to Stand-by Status?

By
19 April 2017


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

After almost eight weeks of elevated activity at the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site, commercial satellite imagery from April 16 indicates little activity around the North Portal, the tunnel that North Korea appears to have been preparing for another nuclear test. Imagery does show what may be three volleyball games underway at different locations throughout the facility, and possibly another volleyball net set up at the command center area.[1]

At the North Portal, the pumping of water out of the tunnel to maintain an optimal environment for instrumentation and stemming seems to have ceased. This could mean that the tunnel has been completely sealed or that the North may have installed drainage pipes instead of using open ditches. The vehicles or trailers that were previously observed near the portal or on nearby roads are gone. Three mining carts are present on the spoil pile and there appears to have been some minor dumping of material there in the past few days.

Based on available imagery, the status of the test site remains unclear. While activities over the past few weeks are similar to those seen prior to previous tests, possible explanations for the most recent developments are:

  • The site and associated preparations for a sixth nuclear test have transitioned to a “stand-by” status, with personnel being allowed some down-time for recreation. Since the North Koreans are aware of when commercial satellites will fly overhead, the presence of personnel at play (with what looks like the normal six players on each side) may be a way of signaling that a decision has been made to place the test on hold.[2]
  • Pyongyang has initiated a tactical pause in activity at the test site as part of an overall deception plan, delaying the sixth nuclear test until a time when a detonation would achieve the greatest political advantage. The North has engaged in such practices in the past. The most notable instance was the satellite launch from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in December 2012, when North Korean press reported technical problems with the Unha space launch vehicle after it was loaded onto the launch pad, but then proceeded to launch it the next day.

Regardless, satellite imagery continues to indicate that the Punggye-ri nuclear test site appears able to conduct a sixth nuclear test at any time once the order is received from Pyongyang.

Figure 1. Only minor activity seen at the North Portal.

Image © 2017 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Image © 2017 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Figure 2. Recent dumping seen on the North Portal’s spoil pile.

Image © 2017 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Image © 2017 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Figure 3. Probable volleyball game seen at the Main Administrative Area.

Image © 2017 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Image © 2017 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Figure 4. Probable volleyball game seen at the command center support area.

Image © 2017 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Image © 2017 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Figure 5. Probable volleyball game seen near the guard barracks.

Image © 2017 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Image © 2017 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Figure 6. Possible volleyball net seen in the command center area.

Image © 2017 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Image © 2017 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

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[1] Volleyball is a popular sport in North Korea and satellite imagery often identifies games in progress throughout the nation. Personnel playing volleyball at the Punggye-ri nuclear test facility have also been identified on a number of occasions as far back as 2006 after the first nuclear test and more recently in February. To date, however, there have been no instances of three concurrent volleyball games.

[2] The orbital timetables of commercial imaging satellites are well known and available on the internet. There is even an Android or iOS App for it.

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