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North Korea appears to be rebuilding tunnels at closed nuclear testing facility

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. (COURTESY OF KCNA)
April 12, 2022

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

North Korea appears to be restoring tunnels at its Punggye-ri nuclear testing site, nearly four years after Kim Jong Un publicly closed it in a move that observers said was an attempt to ease tensions in the region.

Foreign journalists who attended the closing ceremony Kim Jong Un presided over in May 2018 in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong reported that tunnels used for testing had been destroyed. But later reports noted that only the entrances to the tunnels were demolished and that maintenance activity at the site had resumed.

The Open Nuclear Network (ONN), a non-profit organization headquartered in Vienna, Austria, reported last week that North Korea is believed to have built an entrance to tunnel 3, south of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. The ONN report was based on satellite imagery taken between March 24 and April 6.

Residents of the province who were near the Punggye-ri test site told RFA’s Korean Service that they too have seen evidence of construction activities.

“A few days ago, I went to my relative’s house in Kilju county close to Punggye-ri, and I saw trucks carrying construction debris,” a resident of Musan county, in the same province, told RFA’s Korean Service April 7 on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

The trucks unloaded the construction debris in the open space at nearby Chaedok rail station. Then the construction waste was loaded onto a freight train using a forklift. As soon as it was loaded, the freight train departed,” she said.

Access to the part of the station where the debris is stored and loaded is very limited due to a military presence there, the source said.

“I heard from my relative who works at Chaedok station that the debris area is surrounded by armed soldiers and is off-limits to the public,” she said.

“According to my relative, the rocks carried by the freight train are from the tunnel restoration site of the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site, but no one knows why the debris is loaded onto freight trains … instead of being dumped at the nuclear test site,” said the source.

Restoration work at the site has been ongoing around the clock at the site.

“Soldiers from the engineering units under the General Political Bureau of the Ministry of Defense are mobilized day and night to excavate and restore the Punggye-ri nuclear test site.”

A former high-ranking North Korean official who escaped and resettled in South Korea told RFA that it was likely that the orders to restore the tunnels came from the very top.

“The engineer corps under the General Political Bureau is in charge of important construction projects promoted by the party’s Central Committee. If they were the people mobilized to restore the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, it must be considered that this order comes from the supreme commander,” the former official said, referring to Kim Jong Un.

Local residents noticed when construction equipment and materials rolled into Kilju county at the beginning of this year, one county resident told RFA.

“I don’t know when the tunnel restoration of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site started, but it was in mid-February that we saw things like trucks and excavators loaded with rebar and wood and other construction materials entering the village at Punggye-ri,” the Kilju resident said on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

“The nuclear test site tunnels are located in the mountains,” he said. “As trucks loaded with construction materials and excavators are heading toward the tunnels in the mountains where the nuclear test site is located, it seems that the tunnel restoration started in earnest from mid-February.”

The Kilju resident also said he had no idea where they were taking the debris after it was loaded at Chaedok rail station.

“No one can go near the debris because it is so heavily guarded.  If you take a tiny stone from the pile of rubble at the station, you can be treated as a spy and accused of trying to sell it … to hostile countries, “he said.

The two sources both said they were able to see debris unloaded and loaded at the station from a distance of about 100 meters (109 yards) away.

RFA reported in March that movement had been detected in satellite imagery of the test site, and experts predicted the site could be completely restored in six months at the latest.

Of the four tunnels at the test site, all except the first, which was heavily damaged during North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, could possibly be restored, Joseph Bermudez, a senior fellow for Imagery Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told RFA in March.