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North Korea Appears to Have Closed Test Tunnel: Seoul Official

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un arrives at an inauguration ceremony for a military cemetery in Pyongyang last July. Seoul on Thursday said all technical preparations for another nuclear test appear to have been completed, and that the only thing left is a political decision by the Kim regime. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un arrives at an inauguration ceremony for a military cemetery in Pyongyang last July. Seoul on Thursday said all technical preparations for another nuclear test appear to have been completed, and that the only thing left is a political decision by the Kim regime. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

North Korea appears to have closed off a test tunnel in an indication that a nuclear explosion could be imminent, a South Korean official says.

The unidentified government figure told international journalists on Thursday that, according to intelligence reports, "it is believed that North Korea has placed detonator, fissile material and measurement devices in the tunnel and sealed it," Agence France-Presse reported.

The official was unable to say exactly when the underground test chamber at the North's Punggye-ri test site was closed.

The expert website 38 North in a recent image analysis concluded that despite much new activity at the site, it did not appear that a test tunnel had been sealed, which is typically the final step before an atomic blast can be conducted. However, the most recent satellite photographs analyzed by 38 North were taken on April 19, so it is possible for substantial headway in test preparations to have been made in the interim.

A Seoul official told reporters that South Korea and the United States use more sophisticated satellites than the commercial sensors used by 38 North, the New York Times reported.

Officials have noted that Pyongyang could be trying to attract attention by putting on a show of test preparations, without actually carrying out a nuclear blast. The latter action almost certainly would lead to heightened U.S. and U.N. Security Council sanctions.

South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se told parliament on Thursday that all technical preparations appeared finished and all that is left now is a political decision by the Kim Jong Un regime to move forward, the Yonhap News Agency reported.

"Key members of the international community, including the U.S. and China, are having in-depth consultations" over the potentially looming test, the minister said. "If the North goes ahead with a test in defiance of the international warnings, it will face painful measures."

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang on Thursday told journalists that "peace and stability is in the immediate interests of China. We will by no means allow war or chaos to occur on our doorstep."

The comments, according to a separate Yonhap report, amounted to the sternest warning yet from Beijing to Pyongyang to back away from its latest apparent nuclear provocation.

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