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New satellite photos show first construction in years at North Korea nuclear test site, analysts say

Analysts say it's a worrying sign the country could be planning to resume testing atomic bombs after claiming to have destroyed the site in 2018.

Analysts say recent photos taken from space show new buildings and other signs of work at North Korea’s nuclear testing facility in what they call a worrying sign that the country could be planning to resume testing atomic bombs after having claimed to have destroyed the site in 2018.

The images, taken Friday by the commercial satellite firm Maxar, and the analysis by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury Institute of International Studies, show early signs of activity at the nuclear test site at Punggye-ri, said Jeffrey Lewis of the Martin Center, who led the examination.

This satellite image shows North Korea's dismantled nuclear testing facility on Feb. 18, 2022.
A satellite image shows North Korea's dismantled nuclear testing facility on Feb. 18.Maxar

Lewis called the activities “very preliminary."

The changes, including what analysts believe is the construction of a new building, are the first signs of work at the site since North Korea theatrically showed its tunnels being blown up on video in May 2018.

North Korea invited a small number of journalists to witness the dismantling of the test site. The journalists viewed a series of explosions that sealed the tunnel entrances and destroyed some buildings.

The exhibition — the extent of the destruction was not clear to experts — came a month after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced an end to nuclear explosives testing and tests of intermediate-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles. It was part of a diplomatic initiative between Kim and the Trump administration that later fell apart.

A pair of face-to-face summits between Kim and President Donald Trump failed to yield a deal, and even while the discussions proceeded, North Korea never stopped working to improve its nuclear and missile program, intelligence officials have said. Over the past year North Korea has conducted a series of short-range missile tests, including one on Friday, the same day the satellite photos were taken.

In January, North Korea announced it would “make an overall reconsideration of the confidence-building measures that we have taken on our own initiative and on a prior basis [and] promptly examine the issue of restarting all temporarily-suspended activities.” 

Lewis said, “We have been monitoring the Punggye-ri nuclear test site closely for signs that North Korea was beginning to repair the site.”

This satellite image shows North Korea's dismantled nuclear testing facility on March 4, 2022, with signs of new work on the site.
A satellite image shows North Korea's dismantled nuclear testing facility Friday with signs of new work at the site.Maxar

“In the image, we see very early signs of activity at the new site, including construction of a new building, repair of another building and what is possibly some lumber and sawdust,” he said. “North Korea uses a substantial amount of wood at the site both for buildings and shoring up tunnels. These changes occurred only in the past few days.”

Lewis, who has been tracking the North Korean nuclear program for years, said that “one aspect of having so many commercial satellites in orbit is that we often catch construction activities in their very early stages, when it is difficult to conclude what precisely is being built or why.”

“However, this is the first activity we have seen at the site since North Korea dismantled it in May 2018.”

The construction and repair work may indicate that North Korea has made a decision about the status of the test site, Lewis said, and one possibility is that it plans to bring the site back to a state of readiness to resume nuclear explosives testing.

That having been said, the test site is many months, if not years, from being ready for North Korea to conduct nuclear explosions there, Lewis said. 

The timetable to resume explosives testing at the site would depend on the extent of the damage to the tunnels themselves, which is not publicly known. It is also possible North Korea will resume nuclear testing at another location or not at all.

North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile tests violate U.N. resolutions and help the country perfect a nuclear arsenal that intelligence officials fear could hit the continental U.S. 

A CIA spokesperson said the agency was unable to comment.