North Korea continues to defy the international community and flout the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons introduced in 1968.
North Korea not hiding its nuclear ambitions
In a report by 38 North, a website operated by the US-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, it appears that North Korea has been working on a new tunnel around the Punggyi-ri nuclear site. The findings came after the study of images taken between April and November and comes less than a week from a test of a submarine launched ballistic missile by the rogue nation that was deemed a “failure.”
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It’s no secret that North Korea’s nuclear program is a thorn in the side of the international community and the Punggye-ri nuclear zone was home to three nuclear tests which occurred in 2006, 2009 and 2013 in clear violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty which North Korea withdrew from in 2003 following its acceding in 1985. Despite agreeing to the treaty, North Korea has never complied with it.
While the new tunnel is clearly being built away from the other known tunnels, the report says that the construction does not mean that a new underground test is imminent.
“While there are no indications that a nuclear test is imminent, the new tunnel adds to North Korea’s ability to conduct additional detonations over the coming years if it chooses to do so,” the report said.
The commercially-available satellite imagery used in the report shows work on the site as recently as October and November which supports reports made by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency in October which said that workers were building a new tunnel.
North Korea’s nuclear ambitions bring sanctions
Following the underground nuclear detonations in 2006, 2009 and again 2013, it’s clear that Pyongyang possesses a nuclear weapon. However, according to experts, North Korea has been unsuccessful in its attempts to put a warhead on a missile. Each of the three tests came after North Korea was sanctioned by the United Nations for launching rockets.
North Korea has pledged repeatedly to shut down in its primary nuclear facility in Yongbyon even going so far as to destroy the cooling tower at the site in 2008 as part of a disarmament-for-aid deal made with the United Nations. However, in March of 2013, following a war of words with the United States in the face of sanctions by the United Nations for its 2013 nuclear test, the North announced that it would restart all facilities in Yongbyon.
In April 2015, the Institute for Science and International Security reported that Yongbyon was restarted sometime in early 2015 after a study of satellite imagery. North Korean state media confirmed this in September when it said that Yongbyon has returned to “normal operation.”
Is North Korea’s nuclear program progressing?
It’s difficult to say and depends on who you ask. Following the last test in 2013, North Korea claimed that it had finally “miniaturized” a bomb in a manner that it could fit onto a missile. In April of this year, the nation repeated these claims but a number of United States officials have been quoted on record as saying that North Korea is effectively bluffing. Even so, the same officials made it clear that assessing North Korea’s progress is a bit of a fool’s errand.
In 2013, Pyongyang also claimed that the 2013 test had a much higher yield than the plutonium devices detonated in 2006 and 2009 leading experts to conclude that the last test used highly enriched uranium rather than plutonium. However, following the 2013 test the United States was unable to detect radioactive isotopes that would confirm that the device was made with highly enriched uranium.