With President Barack Obama still in Asia, North Korea continues to move ahead with preparations for a nuclear weapons test and may have reached a critical stage in what Pyonyang plans to do next, U.S. officials and experts told NBC News.
“The decision now is political,” said one U.S. official familiar with intelligence on the North Koreans’ nuclear testing. “There are no technical issues that need to be dealt with.”
The latest analysis, which comes just as Obama left South Korea for Malaysia on a diplomatic tour of the region, is from the Institute for Science and International Security. The group acquired commercial satellite imagery of the Punggye-ri test site, located near the Russian border, from Friday morning.
David Albright of ISIS said the imagery appears to show camouflage netting covering one of the test tunnels — or “portals”— used in previous tests.
“The newest image, which ISIS received late on April 25, is of higher resolution,” Albright said. “It shows what may indeed be netting over one of the tunnel entrances at the South Portal. This netting could suggest that the next test would be at this portal and North Korea is trying to shield something from view.”
Placement of the camouflage is usually one of the final preparations prior to a test.
U.S. officials with access to intelligence about the tests declined to comment Friday on the netting issue.
Does this necessarily mean the North is going to go through with a test? Not necessarily, says Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq.
GeoEye via AP
A satellite view of North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear test site on April 18, 2012.
North Korea has made preparations before and not tested.
Albright agreed with the U.S. official who said politics is likely driving a decision.
“There is a political factor that plays a role in the decision to test,” Albright argued. “Does North Korea want to conduct an underground nuclear test while President Barack Obama is in the region? It may guarantee a harsher political response from the president. Nonetheless, determining North Korea’s plans and schedules is always fraught with uncertainty."
The U.S. and its Northeast Asian allies are concerned this test could be larger than North Korea’s three previous tests, and could very well use highly enriched uranium (HEU) as its fuel. The North’s previous tests were fueled by plutonium.
Use of HEU would show that the North had mastered HEU production well enough to produce amounts significant enough to use in nuclear weapons. U.S. officials believe the North has between a dozen and “a few dozen” missile-deliverable weapons.
The North wants to be accepted as a “nuclear weapons state” to help it gain stature in negotiations with the U.S. A successful test would – at least in Pyongyang’s eyes – bolster that argument.
First published April 26 2014, 12:43 PM
Robert Windrem is an investigative reporter/producer with NBC News. His specialty is international security, on-camera commentary on international security for MSNBC and writer on international security for NBCNews.com
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Winner of 45 national journalism awards, including an Emmy as well as Dupont-Columbia, National Press Club, Sigma Delta Chi, three Edward R. Murrow and eight National Headliners Club awards. He has also been nominated for an Emmy 19 times.
Windrem produced the first report on U.S. television on Osama Bin Laden and al Qaeda in January 1997; produced the first inside look of CIA Headquarters on U.S. television in February 1994; arranged and produced exclusive interviews with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in New York in September 2006, and in Tehran in July 2008. He also produced extensive reports on "Nightly News" regarding nuclear proliferation in Israel, South Africa, Iraq and Iran as well as reports on the Mexican drug wars; al Qaeda; US drone attacks in Pakistan, the Boston Marathon bombings, the Washington, D.C., snipers; campaign finance scandals, defense procurement abuse, and intelligence technology, among many others.
He contributed to NBC News documentaries on the war on terrorism, Hurricane Katrina and nuclear strategy.
Windrem co-wrote with William E. Burrows, "Critical Mass: the Dangerous Race for Superweapons in a Fragmenting World", Simon & Schuster, New York, 1994.
He has appeared more than 300 times as an expert on national security issues on MSNBC, NBC News and CNBC as well as CBC in Canada, BBC in the UK, Channel 2 in Israel and ABC in Australia. Most recently he served as a consultant on an Israeli TV documentary on Arnon Milchan, the Hollywood producer and arms dealer.
He is a graduate of Seton Hall University with a degree in communications arts. He also pursued a graduate degree in American Studies at Seton Hall.