New commercial satellite imagery from April 29, 2014 shows that a high level of activity continues at North Korea’s Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site, probably related to preparations for an underground nuclear test. The imagery indicates:
- Continued movement and an increase in number of boxes or crates of possible instrumentation and monitoring equipment at the entrances of both South Portal tunnels (figure 1). There are now approximately 13 boxes near the western-most tunnel entrance and 4 in front of the other entrance, indicating that equipment is still being moved inside. Moreover, appears that none of the tunnels have yet been sealed in preparations for a test.
- There is significant vehicle traffic including a white panel truck, first sighted on April 25, at the South Portal and likely used to transport these boxes or crates. Also present are what appear to be three other darker olive drab vehicles of the same size and commonly used by the the military.
- There is an unidentified object near the trucks that appears to have three petals 120 degrees apart. This is the first time this object has been spotted at Punggye-ri. Its purpose remains unclear.
- At the Main Support Area, in addition to vehicles present in the April 25 imagery, there is now a row of boxes at the upper part of the parade ground (figure 2).
- Excavation of the new tunnel at the West Portal resumed last week after the collapse of the mining cart track in early April (figure 3). This activity began in mid-May 2013, accelerated at the beginning of this year, but was temporarily stopped when the track collapsed (figure 4). It appears that this site is not yet complete.
If North Korea follows previous test practices, a continued high level of activity indicates that a nuclear test is not yet imminent. Before the February 2013 detonation, all equipment, vehicles and personnel were withdrawn immediately before the blast.
Whether North Korea will follow the same time line in 2014 remains unclear. If Pyongyang is preparing to conduct a “new form” of test, including possible multiple detonations, prior practice may be altered. That would make what is already a difficult task predicting the timing of a detonation even more complicated.
Figure 1. Continuing activity at both South Portal tunnel entrances.
Figure 2. Activity at the Main Support Area continues.
Figure 3. Digging resumes at the West Portal.
Figure 4. Spoil pile track collapse at the West Portal is quickly repaired.