Saturday 20 January 2018

North Korea 'preparing for third nuclear weapons test in spring'

Peter Foster

North Korea is making possible preparations for a third nuclear weapons test as early as next spring, reports in Seoul have claimed, as tensions on the Korean Peninsula sparked the largest South Korean civil defence drills in a generation.

Satellite imagery has shown North Korea excavating a fresh tunnel at its nuclear test site, according to an unnamed South Korean intelligence official quoted by the influential Chosun Ilbo newspaper.

Estimates derived from the amount of earth so far removed from the site in Punggye township, in a northeastern region of North Korea, suggested the tunnel was about 500 metres deep, or half the depth needed for a safe nuclear test.

"North Korea is digging the ground pretty hard when it's cold enough to freeze the ground at its two major nuclear facilities," said the intelligence official, with a second source estimating the tunnel would be complete "by March to May".

South Korea's foreign ministry declined to confirm the details of the report, but said: "Nothing has been confirmed that would prove the North is preparing to conduct a nuclear test." The claims that North Korea is readying for a third nuclear test come at a time of seriously escalating tensions on the Peninusla following the shelling of a South Korean village last month which killed four.

South Korean defence chiefs have warned of the likelihood of further attacks by Pyongyang, which appears to be increasingly frustrated at its international diplomatic and economic isolation, imposed after its second nuclear test in May 2009.

In a sign of how the renewed seriousness with which it is treating the North Korean threat, the South staged its largest-ever civil defence drills on Wednesday, with air raid sirens wailing out across major cities as traffic stopped and employees evacuated to underground shelters.

The drills come as international divisions over how to handle North Korea continued, with Deputy U.S. Secretary of State James Steinberg in Beijing to consult with the China, which has called for a restart of negotiations with Pyongyang, a move ruled out by Washington and Seoul.

At the same time, Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico Governor and a frequent unofficial intermediary with Pyongyang was on his way to the North with a mission to "try to get North Korea to calm down a bit".

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