Update on the North Korean Nuclear Test Site


Satellite imagery beginning in January indicates that activity has spread to other areas at the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test site beyond the southern tunnel entrance where North Korea’s third nuclear test was expected to take place. In addition to continuing activity at the southern tunnel entrance and its associated command bunker, imagery indicates the appearance of a possible satellite communications (SATCOM) antenna dish near the 2009 nuclear test tunnel with a clear view of the southern tunnel entrance that could be used to transmit data and video from the third nuclear test. Also, recent imagery reveals new activity in the southeast, a 25 square meter clearing. While the purpose of this activity remains unclear, it warrants watching since one possible explanation for this clearing is that it is the beginning of construction of a new test tunnel for a future detonation (figure 1).

Figure 1. Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility—Northern (West) and Southern Areas

Image © 2013 DigitalGlobe, Inc.

Continuing Operations at the Southern Test Tunnel

Activity has continued at the southern tunnel entrance and its associated command bunker where a third nuclear test may take place. However, imagery from February 7 shows that the tunnel entrance is clearly visible, contradicting South Korean press reports that camouflage concealing it had been installed. The access road to the facility has been kept clear after each snowfall; its bareness indicates usage by vehicular traffic to and from the village of Punggye-ri, some 16 kilometers to the south (figure 2).

Figure 2. Southern Tunnel Entrance

Images © 2013 DigitalGlobe, Inc.

Activity also continues at the southern command bunker area (figure 3). On January 28, tracks on the ground appeared to be caused by vehicle traffic. Imagery from February 2 shows more human tracks—characterized by straight lines to and from building entrances—that increased by February 7. That image also reveals a camouflage cover draped over several unidentified vehicles or vans. In short, this area, key to the conduct of a nuclear test, now appears to be the busiest part of the facility.

Figure 3. Continuing Activity in the Command Bunker Area

Images © 2013 DigitalGlobe, Inc.

New Activity at the Northern Building Area (West Portal)

The northern building area (also termed the “west portal”), the location of the 2009 nuclear test, has been active since the beginning of 2013. The highlight is the appearance of what may be a satellite communications (SATCOM) antenna dish and apparent camouflage netting stretched between two structures. The purpose of the dish would be to record and transmit data and video of events if a test occurs in the southern tunnel (figure 4). The dish and its shadow first appear in imagery from January 23 in the yard facing the southern tunnel entrance some 500 meters away, a good location to fulfill that task.

Figure 4. SATCOM Antenna Appearance in Northern Building Area (West Portal)

Images © 2013 DigitalGlobe, Inc.

Imagery from early February shows that the possible SATCOM antenna and its trailer moved from the yard to the area under the camouflage netting with their tracks clearly visible (figure 5). The web-like camouflage netting is most apparent in the February 3 image. This netting may be the source of some South Korean press reports speculating that camouflage had been placed to conceal the likely location of the 2009 test tunnel entrance and that a dual test might be possible. That assumes that a second test tunnel was also constructed through the same entrance when the tunnel for the 2009 test was prepared. Because of the technical and organizational challenges of conducting two tests simultaneously, it is more practical to conduct one test at a time. Therefore, rather than concealing a tunnel entrance, it seems more likely that this netting is being used to make it difficult to determine which satellite may be used to transmit video and test data as well as possible recipients on the other end of the link.[1]

Figure 5. Camouflage Netting in the Northern Building Area (West Portal)

Images © 2013 DigitalGlobe, Inc.

Newly Cleared Area

To the southeast, there is a newly cleared area that is visible in satellite imagery since late January (figure 6). Since bridge access to that side of the stream has yet to be restored after being washed away in the flooding, all traffic now runs along the bypass road on the other side of the stream. Given this lack of access, the clearing process must have been done manually sometime in mid-January 2013 since imagery from earlier that month showed work had yet begun. The purpose of this activity—the cleared patch is approximately 25 meters square—is still unclear and warrants watching, particularly since one purpose may be the beginning of construction on a fourth test tunnel. If that proves to be the case, it may be three years before the tunnel is completed.

Figure 6. Newly Cleared Area

Image © 2013 DigitalGlobe, Inc.

[1] There is some uncertainty regarding the exact location of the 2009 test tunnel entrance. Some sources place it at the open area up the hill, while others pinpoint it inside the structure indicated in figures 4 and 5. The evidence points to the entrance or entrances being inside the structure that may be the headwork for a previous mine. The construction of one or more test tunnels would have had to occur at the same time since there has been no further mine spoil accumulation since 2009.

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38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea