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N. Korea Shields Nuke Test Tunnel From Satellites

A Dec. 24 satellite image of North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear test site. The North has placed a covering over the entrance to the test tunnel, which would make it more difficult for other nations to determine when an underground detonation is imminent, the New York Times reported (AP Photo/GeoEye Satellite Image). A Dec. 24 satellite image of North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear test site. The North has placed a covering over the entrance to the test tunnel, which would make it more difficult for other nations to determine when an underground detonation is imminent, the New York Times reported (AP Photo/GeoEye Satellite Image).

North Korea has stretched a large canopy over the opening to the underground chamber that is expected to house a looming nuclear test device, likely for the purposes of making it difficult for international satellites to detect signs of an imminent detonation, the New York Times reported on Friday.

Space-based surveillance orbiters have for months captured images that reveal a great deal of activity at the North's Punggye-ri test site. Most officials and experts agree that nearly everything is in technical readiness for Pyongyang's third nuclear trial, which could come as soon as the Kim Jong Un regime issues the order. 

As monitoring satellites cannot show what is taking place inside the test tunnel, South Korea and the United States have been focusing their analysis on the opening to the chamber. Watchers figure that once sealing the entrance with dirt would be a strong indication of a blast about to take place.

"Analysis showed a camouflage net looking like a roof was placed on the tunnel entrance," an unidentified intelligence source told the Yonhap News Agency on Friday. "The move seems to be aimed at keeping nuclear test preparations near their completion from being exposed outside."

The aspiring nuclear power employed plutonium in its two previous tests in 2006 and 2009 but many analysts think it likely highly enriched uranium will be used in the coming trial. A viable uranium-powered detonation would be a troubling development in Pyongyang's march toward a deliverable nuclear weapon, the Associated Press reported.

North Korea in 2010 unveiled a single uranium enrichment facility at its Yongbyon nuclear complex. International monitors have not been allowed to inspect the site and there are worries the reclusive state has other undeclared uranium facilities. Enrichment plants have a smaller energy footprint that plutonium-producing reactors, which makes them harder to uncover and track by satellite. The country also has considerable reserves of natural uranium that can be mined. 

The Stalinist state claims its uranium enrichment activities are civilian in nature.

"It's only logical that it would now test an HEU device, since that would be most helpful for designing its future arsenal," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace nuclear weapons analyst James Acton stated by e-mail.

Some experts, including Acton, think North Korea could detonate multiple devices in its next test -- one uranium-based and the other plutonium-based.

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

NTI Analysis

  • Civilian HEU Reduction and Elimination Resource Collection

    Oct. 6, 2014

    This collection examines civilian HEU reduction and elimination efforts. It discusses why the continued widespread use, internationally, of HEU in the civilian sector poses global security risks, provides an overview of progress to-date in reducing and eliminating the use of HEU in the civilian sector worldwide, and examines remaining challenges to achieving this goal. The collection also includes detailed analysis of progress in eight key countries.

  • Discussion Paper: Strengthening the Security of Plutonium

    Sept. 17, 2014

    In advance of the 2016 NSS, this paper explores a range of options to secure and minimize plutonium stocks around the world.

Country Profile

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North Korea

This article provides an overview of North Korea's historical and current policies relating to nuclear, chemical, biological and missile proliferation.

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