New satellite images show activity at an underground nuclear test site in North Korea

Planet’s April 3 images show a new so-called Crosscut Tunnel, according to Jeffery Lewis, a weapons expert and professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

“The telltale sign is the heap of loot in front of the tunnel. This is rock from inside the mountain as they dig the new tunnel,” Lewis said.

The Crosscut Tunnel intersects with one of the main tunnels behind the entrance, providing a shorter distance to the underground launch area. In 2018, North Korea blew up the tunnel’s original entrance, but likely did not destroy the entire underground structure.

This comes as North Korea may be preparing to take “another provocative measure” next week in connection with Pyongyang’s April 15 holiday, which celebrates the birthday of the country’s founding father Kim Il Sung, according to the special envoy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for North Korea, Sung Kim.

Kim told reporters on Wednesday that he didn’t want to speculate on what specific action Pyongyang might take, but did raise the prospect that it could be a nuclear test as well as another missile launch. North Korea has conducted more than a dozen missile tests this year, including multiple ballistic missile launches.

“We are concerned that the DPRK may be tempted to take another provocative measure in connection with the upcoming April 15 anniversary. Of course we hope not, but we will be prepared,” Kim said, referring to North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Kim reiterated that the US had publicly and privately conveyed the message to North Korea that it was ready to engage diplomatically, but he said the US had not yet received a response.

The United States and its allies believe North Korea is beginning to prepare for a possible underground nuclear test for the first time since 2017.

North Korea recently resumed tunnel digging and construction activities at its underground nuclear test site, according to five US officials. Commercially available satellite imagery had shown some evidence of surface activity at the remote Punggye-ri nuclear test site in Pyongyang.

It’s not yet clear how quickly the regime will be able to test a device on site, as it depends on the pace of activity, officials say.

Preparations for a possible underground nuclear test come after North Korea last month tested its first suspected ICBM since 2017.

“We remain concerned about the North Koreans — their attempt to further improve their nuclear capabilities as well as their ballistic missile capabilities,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters Tuesday. Kirby declined to elaborate on what he meant regarding the regime’s nuclear capabilities.

In 2018, North Korea appeared to destroy at least three nuclear tunnels, observation buildings, a metal foundry and living quarters at its Punggye-ri site, in a process observed by invited international journalists, reported by CNN at the time.
A CNN crew in the remote mountain town in the north of the country witnessed explosions in nuclear tunnels 2, 3 and 4 from observation decks about 500 meters away. They were among two dozen journalists invited into the country to observe the apparent destruction of the site.
The move was seen at the time as a denuclearization gesture by North Korea to the Trump administration, but amid the continued rhetoric, then-President Donald Trump canceled a planned meeting with leader Kim Jong Un.

Officials told CNN that US and allied intelligence agencies estimate that digging activities are underway in previously sealed underground tunnel areas, which would be crucial for underground nuclear testing to resume.

North Korea has conducted six nuclear tests at the site, which is north of Pyongyang, the most recent and most powerful of which was in September 2017.

There is also evidence that North Korea’s next ballistic missile test could take place as early as the next few weeks, an official said, although the official would not provide the reasons for that assessment, and US officials say they believe Kim is likely to conduct the tests will resume a nuclear weapon.

US intelligence estimates that North Korea could be ready to conduct a nuclear test this year, according to the director of national intelligence’s annual threat assessment report released last month. The DNI said nuclear tests and long-range missile tests were “the basis for an increase in tensions” by the regime.

The defense ministry is considering a package of military responses to North Korea’s recent test of an improved ICBM that could range from flying bombers or sailing warships in the region to increased drills and training, defense officials said. Japan and South Korea are being consulted on a possible decision and could be part of any decided show of force, officials say.

Concerns that nuclear tests could resume in the near future come as North Korea has demonstrated a missile that could potentially reach the US. The Pentagon is still evaluating to what extent the missile is an improved version of previous launches.

North Korea reports that the missile had a maximum altitude of 3,905 miles and traveled a distance of 681 miles with a flight time of 68 minutes.

The missile test was accompanied by a Hollywood-style edited video with a soundtrack and footage provided by Kim.

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