Commercial satellite imagery of Pyongyang’s nuclear test site shows activity at an unused tunnel complex that might be part of preparations for a new nuclear test, according to an analysis by 38 North. The specialist website on North Korea hosted by Johns Hopkins University also says that reports of tunnel collapses and trapped workers following tremors at the site cannot be corroborated by the photos.
“Commercial satellite imagery of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site subsequent to North Korea’s sixth underground nuclear test shows significant movement of equipment, mining carts, material and netting within the area of the West Portal—a yet unused tunnel complex where little or no activity had been seen for the past several months,” said the article by 38 North analysts Frank V. Pabian, Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. and Jack Liu.
“While it is not possible to determine the exact purpose of these activities from imagery alone, they could be associated with new nuclear test preparations at the West Portal, further maintenance on the West Portal in general and/or the abandonment of the North Portal,” the writers added.
Activity at the North Portal where the last five of six nuclear tests were conducted, in comparison, has been downsized. Some structures have been removed and no vehicles or equipment have been observed in this area since the test.
The analysts also say a recent report by Japan’s TV Asahi claiming that hundreds of North Korean personnel had been trapped within collapsed tunnels at the test site cannot be corroborated with available satellite imagery. “Significant movement of equipment and material has been observed near the West Portal since the most recent test, providing sufficient evidence that mining personnel have been inside the West Portal,” 38 North said. “But while the three most recent post-test tremors could have caused some damage to the tunnel networks, no observable signs of such a tunnel collapse or intensive rescue/recovery operations are visible outside any of the portals or within any of the support areas.”