New activity suggests North Korea nuclear test likely in ‘near future,’ report says

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SEOUL, March 29 (UPI) — Satellite imagery shows increasing activity at North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site, according to a report by research institute Open Nuclear Network — signaling that Pyongyang is preparing to detonate its first nuclear weapon in five years.

The report, released Monday by the Vienna-based institute, identifies new developments at the site since last December, including signs of excavation of one of the site’s four former test tunnels, construction activities and increased traffic nearby.

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“These developments clearly indicate that the [North Korea] has reactivated, or is in the process of reactivating, some parts of its nuclear weapon test site,” senior analyst Katsuhisa Furukawa, a former member of the U.N. Panel of Experts on North Korea, wrote in the report.

Pyongyang dismantled the Punggye-ri site in May 2018, using explosives to destroy buildings and test tunnel entrances after declaring a freeze on long-range missile and nuclear tests during a period of rapprochement with Washington and Seoul.

However, North Korea lifted its self-imposed moratorium by launching an intercontinental ballistic missile last week and now appears ready to conduct its seventh nuclear test, the ONN report said.

“It is assessed as likely that the DPRK may also end its moratorium on nuclear weapon testing in the near future,” the ONN report said.

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It’s unclear whether North Korea actually demolished the Punggye-ri tunnels in 2018 or just their entrances. Most of the new activity has been near the South Portal, the report said, which has not been used in any nuclear tests in the past and could likely be restored quickly.

Seoul has also been monitoring the construction work at Punggye-ri and government sources said that North Korea appeared to be working on a “shortcut” to the South Portal, also known as Tunnel 3, Yonhap reported Sunday.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said on Monday that the country was continuing to develop “overwhelming military power that cannot be stopped.”