Increased activity at North Korea's main underground nuclear test site suggests that the rogue communist nation is preparing to conduct another illegal atomic weapons blast, according to a report by a Washington-based research institute.
Satellite photographs of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in northeastern North Korea show two new tunnel entrances and ongoing excavations, including where tests were conducted in 2009 and in February in violation of U.N. resolutions, says the report by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.
The new entrances and growing piles of dirt, detected via an analysis of satellite photographs taken between mid-May and Sept. 27, suggest that North Korea may be digging tunnels for nuclear tests or building an entrance to an existing tunnel, the report says. It also notes that construction and renovation work are taking place at the main support area where administrative headquarters, troop barracks and storage facilities are located.
While the increased activity indicates North Korea is preparing to conduct detonations, there are no signs that a nuclear test is being planned for the immediate future, the U.S.-Korea Institute said in its analysis posted on its blog, 38 North.
The report "corroborates what appears to be an unstoppable nuclear weapons program by North Korea," said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. "North Korea, based on everything that we know, is moving inexorably toward the creation of nuclear-tipped missiles that it will deploy sometime in the future."
Violating U.N. resolutions in December, North Korea successfully launched a multistage rocket whose technology is similar to that of intercontinental ballistic missiles that can hit targets hundreds of miles away.
The latest analysis strongly suggests that nuclear tests are in the works.
"We don't know when those tests will occur, but they will occur ... and these tests will bring North Korea closer and closer to a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can go on top of a missile and improve the quality of the warhead and, perhaps, the production of more nuclear warheads of a highly enriched uranium variety, not just the old plutonium variety that were part of the first two tests," Mr. Cronin said.
The U.S.-Korea Institute report coincides with a warning from a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman on Wednesday that Pyongyang will expand its nuclear arsenal to counter what he called U.S. hostility.
"Increasing nuclear threat from outside will only compel [North Korea] to bolster up its nuclear deterrent to cope with this," the unidentified spokesman was quoted as saying by the North's official Korean Central News Agency.
Pyongyang is suspected of enhancing its uranium enrichment capabilities to develop nuclear weapons.
North Korea's nuclear tests in 2006, in 2009 and in February have been met by progressively stringent U.N. Security Council sanctions.
Six-party talks aimed at ending the North's nuclear program stalled when Pyongyang walked out of negotiations in 2009. A year later, it disclosed a new uranium enrichment facility to visiting U.S. scientists.
Obama administration officials have made it clear that the ball is now in Pyongyang's court, said Jae Ku, director of the U.S.-Korea Institute.
"But the message to our officials at State and elsewhere is that we need to begin some kind of dialogue and that strategic patience is not a substitute for a policy," Mr. Ku said.
The Foreign Ministry spokesman said Pyongyang will not take a unilateral first step toward resolving the nuclear impasse: "Action for action remains a basic principle for finding a solution to the nuclear issue on the peninsula, and [North Korea] will, therefore, not unilaterally move first."
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