Recent satellite imagery analysis has revealed only limited activity at North Korea’s Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site, suggesting that at present Pyongyang is not planning to resume major operations at the facility.
Imagery has found that personnel does remain on-site, with evidence of limited activity near the security barracks as well as some efforts to maintain roadway access to part of the facility. In the past, similar imagery analysis has found that security personnel has continued to conduct routine patrols of the area, while radiation monitoring has also likely taken place. Work to repair damage caused to roads and bridges near the site by flooding has also been observed.
The Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site remains North Korea’s only confirmed underground nuclear test site. The facility is made up of an extensive array of tunnel networks that branch off from various main portals, with experts assessing that the tunnels likely involve “zig-zag” patterns similar to those used at underground facilities used by other nuclear-weapon states that end in “fishhook” shapes to facilitate self-sealing of the tunnels following detonations, along with blast traps built into the tunnels.
The Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site has been the site of all six of North Korea’s nuclear tests so far, with the first test taking place in the facility’s East Portal and the subsequent five tests taking place in the North Portal.
Just over three years ago, North Korea took steps to dismantle the Punggye-ri site by destroying support buildings and using explosives to destroy entrances to the facility’s test tunnels. The North Korean dismantlement of the facility followed the April 2018 inter-Korean summit meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in and preceded the first of two summits between Kim and Former President Donald Trump.
Despite this, many analysts have argued that North Korea’s dismantlement of the facility is easily reversible. Some important support structures at the facility were not destroyed, which could shorten the time it would take to resume operations at the site in the future, while the damage done to the tunnels and the interior of the facility remains unclear. It is also unclear whether or not North Korea has engaged in additional tunneling at the site.
In order to better determine the relative permanency of the dismantlement, experts have called for onsite inspections which, while unlikely to fully ensure that the site remains unused, could at least allow for enhanced detection of North Korean efforts to restart activities at the facility.
North Korea has continued to develop its nuclear program, with some evidence of possible nuclear activity emerging in recent weeks. Experts have estimated that North Korea could possess between 20 and 60 nuclear weapons, with other projections indicating that North Korea could be in possession of as many as 151 to 242 nuclear weapons by 2027.
Eli Fuhrman is a contributing writer for The National Interest.
Image: Wikimedia Commons