Post Test Activity at Punggye-ri

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

On September 9, 2016, North Korea conducted its fifth—and reportedly largest—nuclear test to date at its Punggye-ri nuclear test site. Current estimates place the epicenter of the 5.2 magnitude test at approximately 41°17’54.60”N, 129°4’40.80”E­—or roughly 200-300 meters east of the estimated January 2016 epicenter and almost directly under the peak of Mt. Mantap.[1] This area is 2.2 km northwest of the North Portal—the site of three previous tests and the most probable site of this test.

Commercial satellite imagery from September 15 shows a low level of post-test activity at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, indicating extensive efforts at camouflage, concealment and deception to minimize the collection of detailed information by satellites.[2] The flooding reported in the northeast provinces caused by Typhoon Lionrock does not appear to have affected the Punggye-ri facility to any degree of significance, with the possible exception of minor flooding of the fords along the main access road.

While this is the fourth test to be conducted from the North Portal, there is no way of knowing whether additional tunnels exist at this Portal. Moreover, the presence of unused tunnels at the West and South Portals mean North Korea could conduct further nuclear tests at Punggye-ri with little to no notice.

Test Epicenter

The epicenter of the test is currently estimated to be at approximately 41°17’54.60”N, 129°4’40.80”E­. Commercial satellite imagery from September 15 shows no significant surface changes at this site compared to imagery from May 27.

Figure 1. No surface changes detected at the estimated test epicenter.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2016. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

North Portal

The net canopy on the south side of the North Portal’s support building is still present on September 15. A few objects (probably mining carts) are visible on the tailings pile, although the carts that were on the approach ramp of the tailings pile seen in the August 27 image are no longer present. There is no evidence of new excavation operations.

Figure 2. Canopy still in place near North Portal.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2016. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

West Portal

At the West Portal, the tailings pile does not appear to have expanded since the August 27 image. Several mining carts are present immediately south of the support building, although it’s unclear if they are simply being stored (or repaired), or if excavation operations are underway.

Figure 3. Mining carts seen on tailings pile, but unclear if excavation underway.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2016. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Main Administrative Area

At the Main Administrative Area, by September 15, the three small shipping crates or vehicles seen in the August 27 image are no longer present. There are, however, two small shipping crates or vehicles are present in the smaller courtyard.

Figure 4. Some small crates or vehicles are present in small courtyard.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2016. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

South Portal

The South Portal is in shadow and details in the area are not readily visible. It is unclear whether the small crates or pieces of equipment at the entrance are still present.

Figure 5. South Portal is in shadow.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2016. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.
Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2016. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Command Center Area

At the Command Center Area, a small group of people are present in the adjacent support area.

Figure 6. Group of people seen at support area.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2016. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.
Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2016. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

 

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[1] NORSAR. Press Release: North Korean Underground Nuclear Test Larger Than Previous Tests, http://www.norsar.no/norsar/about-us/News/Press-Release—North-Korean-underground-nuclear-test-larger-than-previous-tests. As with previous tests the estimated location of the epicenter may become more refined as the data is further reviewed and processed.

[2] 38 North’s pre-test satellite imagery report can be found here.

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