REPORTING FROM SEOUL -- South Korea is fearful that North Korea is gearing up to test a nuclear weapon, pointing to satellite photos that reportedly show the country digging a new underground tunnel at a nuclear test site.
"North Korea is making clandestine preparations for a third nuclear test" at the same site where it conducted two nuclear tests in the past, a South Korean official told the Yonhap News Agency on condition of anonymity. A leaked South Korean intelligence report came to the same conclusions.
Satellite photos have captured what South Korean officials say is worrisome activity at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. Piles of earth and sand were spotted near the entrance of the new tunnel, possibly meant to plug it as one of the final steps before carrying out a nuclear test blast, Yonhap News Agency reported.
Similar mounds of soil were detected before the North carried out nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.
Fears are already high in the region: The isolated North Korean regime has already announced plans to launch a satellite this month, ramping up tensions with its southern neighbor and torpedoing a deal with the United States that would have yielded badly needed food aid.
North Korea argues the launch is peaceful, timed to mark a century since the birth of Kim Il Sung. It announced last month that it would send up an "earth-orbiting satellite" between April 12 and 16.
“This is an inspiring deed and an event of historic significance of the nation as it demonstrates the leaping development of space science and technology of the country,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency said Sunday. The country invited foreign journalists to the launching station "to show the peaceful nature of the satellite launch in a transparent manner," it wrote.
Military analysts argue that the satellite program is really a cover for testing ballistic missile technology. The launch plans have been met with alarm in South Korea and the West. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said last month it "would pose a threat to regional security."
North Korea is expected to press forward despite the pressure.
“While the North is surely affected by the food aid being cut off, they will push on with their plans for the rocket launch,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. “We can put on pressure to them by imposing sanctions, but they will use the missile and nuclear to pressure the U.S. back.”
Several Asian airlines plan to change their flight paths to avoid the launch, the Associated Press reported. South Korea is also drawing up plans to evacuate South Koreans living along the Yellow Sea coastline and conducting mock drills to intercept the rocket if it falls into their territory, according to the Korea Herald. Upcoming parliamentary elections have been overshadowed by the nuclear fears.
Opposition politicians have questioned the timing of the intelligence leak about the planned nuclear test, just days ahead of the polls.
“Already a month ago there have been reports about possible third nuclear test by North Korea. North Korea themselves have hinted that along with launch of [the satellite], they might conduct the third nuclear test,” said opposition Democratic Unity Party spokesperson Park Yong-jin in a press briefing Monday. “It seems rather suspicious that the intelligence authorities would highlight this issue and bring media and people’s attention to it only three days prior to the legislative election.”
The Japanese newspaper Chosun Shinbo reportedly hinted that if North Korea is sanctioned over its satellite launch, it might respond with a nuclear test. It drew a comparison to April 2009, when North Korea launched a missile, then conducted its second nuclear test, the Herald wrote.
“While it seems possible that North Korea may conduct a nuclear test after the missile launch like it did in 2009, we will need to wait until liftoff takes place to see how the situation progresses,” South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok told reporters Sunday in Seoul, Bloomberg reported.
-- Jung-yoon Choi in Seoul and Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: North Korean soldiers wait to check journalists as they arrive at the Tongchang-ri space center in North Phyongan province on Sunday. Credit: Pedro Ugarte / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images