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North Korea Readying For Underground Nuke Test, South Says

North Korea seems to be readying to detonate a third nuclear test device underground, an anonymous South Korean government source told the New York Times on Sunday (see GSN, April 5).

The report comes as Pyongyang is finishing preparations for its declared launch of a long-range rocket into space sometime between April 12 and 16 -- an action the United States and others have condemned as a serious violation of U.N. Security Council directives (see related GSN story, today).

South Korean news media over the last two years have reported that the Stalinist state appears to be excavating a new underground passage at the Punggye-ri atomic test area (see GSN, Feb. 22, 2011). North Korea in 2006 and 2009 conducted its two previous nuclear tests at the installation.

The aspiring nuclear power is prohibited under Security Council resolutions from detonating nuclear devices. Pyongyang also agreed under a February bilateral deal with the Obama administration to refrain from carrying out new missile and nuclear tests in return for a measure of nutritional assistance.

Recent pictures taken from space reveal a mounting pile of dirt close to the opening of one underground passage at Punggye-ri, which researchers believe is a likely sign a new nuclear test is being readied, the South Korean official said. A considerable amount of soil is required to close off the underground passage prior to an atomic blast.

The Security Council responded to the North's second such test three years ago with tougher sanctions targeting the nation's atomic and missile development programs.

A number of experts are worried Pyongyang under new leader Kim Jong Un could be entering a new period of provocations should it launch its long-range rocket this month (Choe Sang-hun, New York Times, April 8).

Issue experts have said a third North Korean nuclear test would serve a primary purpose of advancing the nation's ability to develop warheads small enough to mount on missiles.

"North Korea is covertly preparing for a third nuclear test, which would be another grave provocation," a South Korean intelligence report stated in an analysis of the satellite images snapped on the first of the month. "North Korea is digging up a new underground tunnel at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, in addition to its existing two underground tunnels, and it has been confirmed that the excavation works are in the final stages," the Associated Press quoted the report as saying.

The amount of earth close to the tunnel opening points to a "high possibility" that a third nuclear test is in the works, according to the intelligence report (Hyung-Jin Kim, Associated Press/Time, April 9).

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