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North Korea's Actions at Atomic Test Site Confound Experts

A North Korean soldier walks along his side of the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone on Wednesday. Despite fears to the contrary, Pyongyang does not appear to be preparing an imminent nuclear test, a U.S. think tank said on Tuesday. A North Korean soldier walks along his side of the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone on Wednesday. Despite fears to the contrary, Pyongyang does not appear to be preparing an imminent nuclear test, a U.S. think tank said on Tuesday. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

Trying to discern what Pyongyang is planning at its nuclear test site is a maddening challenge for foreign observers, as the latest image analysis shows.

North Korea has made repeated threats in recent weeks of its intention to carry out a fourth nuclear test but has not provided details on when that provocative event might occur. South Korean officials have said for weeks they believe that a test is imminent, but issue experts are not so sure.

Photographs of the Punggye-ri test site that are taken every few days by commercial satellites and then analyzed by image specialists are the primary avenue the public has for knowing what is actually happening on the ground. While considerable activity can be discerned at the site, it is not clear to experts whether the work is aimed at preparing for an imminent nuclear test or whether mundane maintenance work is taking place.

Based on photographs taken on May 9, the expert website 38 North concluded in a Tuesday report that "it appears that a nuclear test is not imminent." A separate analysis of Friday photographs by the Institute for Science and International Security said the exact timing of the expected test could not be determined based on the activity at the site.

38 North image experts Nick Hansen and Jack Liu said they were able to detect continued activity around two tunnel entrances in the "South Portal" area, digging and construction work in the "West Portal" area, and piles of lumber next to an apparent roofing project for a building in the administrative support area. While some of the activity around the tunnel entrances could be in support of an imminent underground atomic blast, other detected movements, such as new logging work begun near the West Portal area, could suggest otherwise, the experts said.

The 38 North analysts believe several scenarios could be playing out: North Korea is planning to conduct a fourth atomic blast, but not on the short time-frame the world is expecting; the North is seeking to maximize public attention around predictions for when a test might occur by doing things to confuse international observers; or Pyongyang has changed its mind about an atomic trial as a result of diplomatic lobbying and is now conducting routine maintenance activities.

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