North Korea may be making preparations for another long-range rocket launch or other test, an analysis of satellite imagery has shown.
The findings come just days after activity was spotted at the Punggye-ri nuclear site, fueling speculation that the North may also conduct its third nuclear test of the year.
The apparent preparations come as Pyongyang marks the 71st anniversary of the ruling party’s establishment Monday, and nearly 10 years to the date since the North conducted its first nuclear test on Oct. 9, 2006.
Past atomic tests and missile launches have often been tied to key dates on the North Korean calendar. Last month, it carried out its fifth and most powerful nuclear test on the anniversary of the North’s founding as a state.
In the latest satellite imagery analysis released Saturday, the 38 North blog run by Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies noted increased activity at the North’s Sohae satellite launching station.
The images, taken Oct. 1, show crates on the launchpad next to the gantry tower and vehicles near the fuel and oxidizer buildings. Work also appeared to be continuing at the nearby vertical engine test stand, which could indicate preparations for a new engine test.
“However, since both the gantry tower and the assembly structures on the launchpad are covered, it is unclear whether this activity is related to launch preparations or other operations,” the report said.
Under leader Kim Jong Un, the North has been conducting nuclear and missile tests at an unprecedented pace, with 49 missile tests and three nuclear tests since taking power nearly five years ago, according to data compiled by the Beyond Parallels program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
Last month, the North also announced the successful ground test of a new type of “high-power engine,” ostensibly for launching satellites.
Kim had urged scientists and technicians to make preparations for launching a satellite “as soon as possible on the basis of the successful test,” an indication that the North might conduct a prohibited long-range rocket launch soon.
In February — a month after its fourth nuclear test — the North carried out its last successful satellite rocket launch, a move prohibited by United Nations sanctions. Pyongyang asserts that the launches are purely scientific, but the international community has blasted them as thinly veiled ballistic missile tests.
For the time being — especially considering the looming U.S. presidential election on Nov. 8 — the frequency of tests is unlikely to slow, analysts say
“Doing a major test would be a way of trying to intimidate the incoming president,” Victor Cha, co-author of a study that said a North Korean provocation is likely around the time of the election, was quoted by CNN as saying earlier this month.
“North Korea chooses particular windows that they know will gain maximum attention from the world, and the U.S. in particular,” said Cha. “It could be a sixth nuclear test, it could be launching of their rocket which put a satellite in orbit.”
Pyongyang conducted its first atomic test in 2006 and has since defied U.N. sanctions to forge ahead in developing the weapons and missiles needed to carry them, which it claims are necessary for self-defense.
Its ultimate goal is to be able to strike the continental U.S. with nuclear-tipped missiles. Experts say that while the North has yet to reach that goal, it has moved increasingly closer with its ramped-up tests this year.
Speaking in Seoul on Saturday after a visit to Japan, United States Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power said the U.S. and its allies were working to take further actions against the North.
“Now we are looking to see what more can be done because, of course, another test was carried out at the beginning of September,” she said in a statement. “This must stop. We are not intimidated by the action of the government of North Korea.”
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