People walk past a street monitor in Tokyo showing a news report about North Korea's nuclear test last September. Photo: Reuters/Toru Hanai

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono’s claim that North Korea is preparing to make another nuclear weapons test isn’t borne out by recent satellite imagery, according to a Tuesday post by 38 North.

Kono reportedly said in a lecture in Kochi city on March 31 that Pyongyang appears to be “working hard to get ready for the next nuclear test.” He pointed to reports that soil has been “removed from the tunnel at the nuclear test site where past tests were conducted.” A story by Kyodo news service also suggested that Kono’s remarks “may be based on satellite imagery provided by the United States.”

But the respected specialist website on North Korea noted that recent commercial satellite photos tell a different story.

“While it is unclear whether the Foreign Minister was referring to activity observed over the last few days or from earlier work conducted after North Korea’s September 2017 nuclear test, commercial satellite imagery from March 23 shows quite a different picture: namely, that activity at the test site has been significantly reduced compared to previous months,” North Korea experts Frank V Pabian, Joseph S Bermudez Jr, and Jack Liu wrote in an analysis. “Tunneling at the West Portal, a site not associated with any of North Korea’s previous tests, had been active earlier this year but has slowed down significantly as has other personnel and vehicular movement around the site.”

The three analysts have also questioned the accuracy of an earlier report in the New York Times that North Korea is starting up a light water reactor in an act that might threaten an upcoming May summit between President Donald Trump and leader Kim Jong-un. Light water reactors are used to generate electricity for civilian purposes, but can also produce fissile materials for nuclear weapons.

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