A South Korean intelligence report says North Korea is preparing to test a nuclear weapon, as the isolated communist regime readies the launch of a long-range rocket as early as this week.
Analysis of satellite imagery shows tunnels being dug at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, where atomic tests were conducted in 2006 and 2009, according to the intelligence report. The document was the subject of a report Sunday by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.
Work at Punggye-ri is believed to be in its final stages, Yonhap said, citing unnamed intelligence officials.
The satellite pictures, shown on South Korean TV news, revealed large piles of earth and sand at the entrance to a tunnel on the site. Analysts believe the soil was brought to the site to fill in the tunnel, one of the last steps before test-firing a nuclear weapon underground.
The news will raise tensions on the divided peninsula, where 28,500 U.S. troops and their South Korean allies face off against their North Korean counterparts across the last Cold War border.
Previous nuclear tests followed within three months of a multistage rocket launch, like the one Pyongyang has announced will take place between Thursday and Monday. Washington officials say the rocket has the range to hit parts of the United States.
On Monday, several Asian airlines said they would reroute flights in the region to avoid the area around the rocket’s projected flight path. Last week, Japan and South Korea announced that they would shoot down any parts of the rocket that threatened to fall onto their territories. North Korea said that would be an act of war.
Over the weekend, the normally secretive North Korean regime took the extraordinary step of admitting a group of escorted foreign reporters to the Sohae Satellite Station in the far northwest of the country.
The reporters were shown the three-stage Unha-3 long-range rocket, which appeared to be fully assembled on the launchpad, and the communications satellite Pyongyang says it will carry.
Officials at the site insisted that the launch - part of the celebrations this week of the centenary of the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung - is peaceful and legal. They said every sovereign nation has the right to the peaceful exploration and use of space.
U.S., Japanese and South Korean officials say the launch will test long-range missile technology, violating a U.N. ban on North Korean ballistic and nuclear weapons development.
“They can’t launch the thing without using ballistic missile technology, which is precluded by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday. “So, regardless of what they say about it, it’s still a violation.”
She called the launch “highly provocative” and said a nuclear test “would be equally bad, if not worse.”