SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Commercial satellite images suggest a resumption of construction activity at North Korea’s nuclear testing ground nearly four years after leader Kim Jong-Un declared the site’s closure and invited foreign journalists to observe the destruction of tunnels ahead of his first summit with then-U.S. President Donald Trump.
Analysts say it’s unclear how long it would take North Korea to restore the site for nuclear detonations if it intends to do so. The site in Punggye-ri in the country’s northeast was used for its sixth and last nuclear test in 2017.
The sighting of construction activity at the site comes amid a deepening diplomatic freeze since the collapse of the second Kim-Trump meeting in February 2019, when the Americans rejected North Korean demands for major sanctions relief in exchange for a partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities.
North Korea has used the pause in talks to further expand its military capabilities, including nine rounds of missile launches in 2022 alone. The unusually fast pace indicates an intent to pressure the Biden administration, which has offered open-ended talks but shown no willingness to concede on sanctions.
Kim presided over a ruling Workers’ Party meeting in January where Politburo members denounced what they described as U.S. hostility and issued a veiled threat to resume tests of nuclear explosives and long-range missiles that Kim unilaterally suspended in 2018 to create diplomatic space with Trump.
Some experts say Kim is reviving an old playbook of brinkmanship to extract concessions from Washington and his neighbors as he grapples with a decaying economy crippled by the pandemic, mismanagement and persisting U.S.-led sanctions.
The new construction at Punggye-ri was first reported in an analysis of satellite images from Maxar Technologies by Jeffrey Lewis and Dave Schmerler at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.