North Korea: High Level of Activity at Nuclear Test Site Portal but Purpose is Unclear

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

Summary

Recent commercial satellite imagery indicates a high level of activity at North Korea’s Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site, specifically at the North Portal area where the DPRK conducted its 2013 and 2016 nuclear tests. Based on imagery alone, it is not possible to determine whether this activity is for maintenance, excavation or preparation for a fifth nuclear test. Nevertheless, it is clear that North Korea is ensuring that the facility is in a state of readiness that would allow the conduct of future nuclear tests should the order come from Pyongyang.

High Level of Activity at North Portal

Commercial satellite imagery from July 7 indicates a high level of activity at the North Portal. What appears to be supplies and/or equipment are stacked on the ground south and southeast of the portal. Additionally, a small vehicle is present at the support building immediately to the south of the portal. Several mine ore carts may also be present southeast of the portal, suggesting the tunnel is being actively worked.  However, the resolution of the image is insufficient to provide further insight into the nature of this activity.

Figure 1. Supplies/equipment, vehicle and several mine ore carts identified at the North Portal.

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Limited Activity at West Portal

Imagery shows little activity at the West Portal although what appear to be two mine ore carts are present on the tailings pile to the east. Their presence suggests that work is taking place at the tunnel. The winter melt and runoff, combined with recent rains, produced a small landside just uphill of the portal. It is unclear if this has affected operations at the site.

Figure 2. Two mine ore carts present at the West Portal.

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No Activity at South Portal or Main Support Area

There is no activity identified at the South Portal, though runoff (caused by winter melt and recent rain) is visible in the area. This is also true at the Main Support Area, although greenhouse activity and light ground scarring indicate the area is active.

Figure 3. No activity at South Portal.

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Figure 4. No activity at the Main Support Area.

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 Activity on Facility Access Road

Several groups of people and small vehicles are visible on the road south of the test facility. The nature or purpose of their presence is unclear, although it is likely that they are either engaged in spring maintenance or travelling to and from the test facility.

Figure 5. Vehicles identified on facility access road.

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Figure 6. Group of people visible on road.

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Little Activity in the Command Center Area

Imagery shows no vehicles or activity in the secured Command Center area. Camouflage is visible on the southernmost building, but it is unclear why this building has a camouflaged roof since the light blue/dark blue pattern stands out dramatically against the green forests around it.

Imagery indicates the construction of a building east of the Command Center and on the main road to the test facility. The purpose of this new building is unclear, but its position—east of the Command Center and between the north and south guard positions—suggests that it may support the security forces in this area.

Figure 7. New building constructed at the Command Center area.

Image © 2016 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.
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