New commercial satellite images show some of the clearest signs yet that North Korea is again digging a tunnel at its remote underground nuclear test site in a way that could potentially shorten the time it needs for its next try.
Planet’s April 3 images show a new so-called cross-section tunnel, according to Jeffery Lewis, a weapons expert and professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
“The telltale sign is the pile of spoil in front of the tunnel. It’s rock from inside the mountain as they dig the new tunnel,” Lewis said.
The through tunnel intersects with one of the main tunnels beyond the entrance, providing a shorter distance to the underground launch area. In 2018, North Korea blew up the original entrance to the tunnel but likely did not destroy the entire underground structure.
It comes as North Korea could be preparing to take “another provocative action” next week as part of the April 15 holiday in Pyongyang celebrating the birthday of the country’s founding father Kim Il Sung, according to the special representative. of the State Department for North Korea, Sung Kim. .
Kim told reporters on Wednesday he didn’t want to speculate on specific steps Pyongyang might take, but raised the possibility that it could be a nuclear test, as well as another missile launch. . North Korea has conducted more than a dozen missile tests this year, including several ballistic missile launches.
“We fear that on the upcoming April 15 anniversary, the DPRK may be tempted to take another provocative action. We obviously hope not, but we will be ready,” Kim said, referring to the People’s Republic. Democratic Republic of Korea, Official name of Korea.
Kim reiterated that the United States had publicly and privately conveyed the message to North Korea that it was willing to engage diplomatically, but he said the United States had not yet received a response.
The United States and its allies believe that North Korea is beginning to prepare for a possible underground nuclear test for the first time since 2017.
North Korea recently resumed tunneling and construction activities at its underground nuclear test site, according to five U.S. officials. Commercially available satellite images showed signs of surface activity at the remote Punggye-ri nuclear test site in Pyongyang.
It is not yet clear how soon the regime would be able to test a device at the site, as it depends on the pace of activity, officials said.
Preparations for a possible underground nuclear test come after North Korea tested its suspected first intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017 last month.
“We remain concerned about the North Koreans – their attempt to continue to improve their nuclear capability as well as their ballistic missile capability,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters on Tuesday. Kirby declined to be more specific about what he was referring to regarding the regime’s nuclear capability.
In 2018, North Korea appeared to destroy at least three nuclear tunnels, observation buildings, a metal smelter and living quarters at its Punggye-ri site, in a process observed by guest international journalists that CNN reported. at the time.
A CNN team at the remote mountain site in the north of the country witnessed explosions in nuclear tunnels 2, 3 and 4, from observation decks about 500 meters away. They were among two dozen journalists invited to the country to observe the apparent destruction of the site.
The move was seen at the time as North Korea making a move toward denuclearization with the Trump administration, but following ongoing rhetoric, then-President Donald Trump rescinded a move. scheduled meeting with leader Kim Jong Un.
Officials told CNN that US and allied intelligence agencies are assessing that digging activities in previously closed underground tunnel areas are underway, which would be essential for the resumption of underground nuclear testing.
North Korea has carried out six nuclear tests at the site, located north of Pyongyang, the most recent and powerful of which took place in September 2017.
There are also indications that North Korea’s next ballistic missile test could take place as early as the next few weeks, an official said, although the official did not specify the reasons for this assessment, and US officials say they think Kim is likely to resume testing a nuclear weapon.
The U.S. intelligence community believes North Korea may be ready to conduct a nuclear test this year, according to the Director of National Intelligence’s annual threat assessment report released last month. The DNI said the nuclear tests and long-range missile tests “lay the groundwork for increased tensions” by the regime.
The Department of Defense is considering a range of military responses to North Korea’s recent test of an improved intercontinental ballistic missile that could range from flying bombers or sailing warships in the region to strengthening exercises and training , according to defense officials. Japan and South Korea are being consulted on a potential move and could be part of any decided show of force, officials say.
The fear that nuclear testing could resume in the near future comes as North Korea demonstrated a missile that could potentially reach the United States. The Pentagon is still evaluating how the missile is an upgraded version of previous launches.
North Korea reports the missile had a maximum altitude of 3,905 miles and traveled a distance of 681 miles with a flight time of 68 minutes.
The missile test was accompanied by a Hollywood-style edited video with a soundtrack and footage of Kim.
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