In 2016, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program shifted in an important way, from developing a nuclear capability in the abstract to deploying a nuclear-armed force of ballistic missiles. North Korea conducted an unprecedented number of missile tests and conducted two nuclear explosions. A new 3D model of North Korea’s nuclear test site suggests many more may be on the way.
Over the past year, North Korea conducted 24 missile launches. In some cases, these tests were to develop new missiles like the intermediate-range Musudan ballistic missile. In other cases, the tests were launches by actual missile units. In other words, these were not developmental tests, but military training exercises. The tests provided a hint into North Korea’s evolving nuclear doctrine, as North Korean military units practiced striking ports where U.S. forces might be concentrated in a war and conducted “salvo” launches of several missiles at once as they would likely do in an attack in order to defeat missile defenses.
Additionally, North Korea conducted two nuclear weapons tests in 2016 – one in January and another in September. North Korea claimed that the January test was a “hydrogen bomb” and that the September test was a “standardized” nuclear warhead compact enough to arm the missile force that conducted so many launches over the past year. Assessing these claims, however, is difficult based on seismic information alone. As James Clapper, U.S. Director of National Intelligence admitted, when asked about the possibility that the January test might have been a “boosted” device, “We don't really know. … It’s hard to tell what they were going to do.”
It is hard, as Clapper says, but there are ways to try to understand North Korea’s nuclear test program. One way to gain insights is to model North Korea’s nuclear test site at Punggye-ri. We, the authors, created a digital terrain model of it, and then used other open source data to examine the location and yield of North Korea’s nuclear tests. Understanding the layout and purpose of the test site provides some clues to North Korea’s nuclear past – and future. What we found surprised us.
Korea has conducted five nuclear tests at its nuclear test site since 2006. Since 2009, North Korea has conducted the
last four of those nuclear tests in a tunnel complex underneath a single
mountain, known as Mount Mantap. The Mantap tunnel complex is just one of four
tunnel complexes at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. Tunnel projects are
also visible in mountains to the east of the test site (which is where North
Korea’s first nuclear test was conducted), and there are new tunnels to the
south and west of the main support area.
We modeled the terrain using data provided by NASA and Japan’s METI.
we really wanted to know was how North Korea’s nuclear tests fit within the
mountains that surround the test site.
We were especially interested in the last four tests, which all took
place in the Mount Mantap tunnel complex, north of the test site. Will North Korea run out of room to keep
testing? We used a variety of open source information to locate the explosions
and the layout of the tunnel complex.
What amazed us was how perfectly North Korea’s test complex appears to match with openly available descriptions of U.S. nuclear test tunnels. The tunnel layout, based on the bearing of entrance and the location of the explosions, almost perfectly matches the P-tunnel at the Nevada National Security Site, where the U.S. conducted its nuclear testing. We also created a virtual reality model of the tunnels, using images of U.S. tunnels and an animation produced by North Korea’s state-film studio.