Military, Nuclear Weapons

Punggye-ri Update: Construction and Volleyball

Key Findings

  • Satellite image collected on April 25, 2022, provides one of the most detailed and current views of continued activity at the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility.
  • Construction of new buildings, movement of lumber, and an increase in equipment and supplies immediately outside the new entrance to Tunnel No. 3 indicates that construction work is ongoing both inside Tunnel No. 3 and outside in the nearby areas.
  • Personnel can also be seen playing volleyball in the courtyard of the main administrative and support area, as has happened in the past during 2017.
  • The date of a seventh nuclear test will undoubtedly depend exclusively upon the personal decision of Kim Jong-un. Current satellite imagery indicates that preparations are well underway and should not be discounted as insignificant activity.
Overview of the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility showing all four test tunnels and the main administration and support area. Click to enlarge. (Copyright © Airbus DS 2022)

Analysis of satellite imagery of the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility since late 2021 shows that North Korea has undertaken a project to reactivate Tunnel No. 3 (South Portal). A recent image collected on April 25, 2022, provides one of the most detailed and current views of this continuing activity. Construction of new buildings and renovations of existing buildings near Tunnel No. 3 and the main administrative and support area has continued over the past few weeks. While there were no notable increases in the spoil piles near Tunnel No. 3, an increase in activity (e.g., equipment, supplies, etc.) immediately outside the new entrance to the tunnel and changes to the size of the piles of stored lumber suggest construction work is ongoing inside Tunnel No. 3 and the main administrative and support area.

Tunnel No. 3

In late March, anonymous South Korean government sources revealed that North Korea seemed to be creating a “shortcut” path to Tunnel No. 3, also known as the South Portal, at the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site. Sources assessed that North Korea initially worked to restore the original entrance to Tunnel No. 3, but abruptly halted the effort to instead dig another entrance to the side, creating a new entrance to the tunnel.1 Consistent to these statements, several sources have previously reported the increase in activities near Tunnel No. 3 starting in early March.2 As assessed by these sources, satellite image from March 4, 2022, showed the construction of new buildings, renovations of existing buildings, and log piles. Analysis of previous satellite images suggests that activities in the area started in February. Images show that the preparation and construction of the first new building near the entrance to Tunnel No. 3 were initiated in late February and completed by early March.

Recent satellite image from April 25, 2022, shows indications of continued activity at the entrance of Tunnel No. 3. Notably, a new building was constructed sometime during the third week of April.

Overview of the entrance to Tunnel No. 3 and support buildings. Click to enlarge. (Copyright © Airbus DS 2022)

While the size of the spoil pile outside Tunnel No. 3 has not changed over the past few weeks, satellite image shows continued activity, such as the increased presence of equipment and supplies immediately outside the new entrance. These changes, along with the movement of lumber in the area, suggest that work is ongoing inside Tunnel No. 3.

Close-up view of the entrance to Tunnel No. 3 showing increased activity. Click to enlarge. (Copyright © Airbus DS 2022)

Main Administration and Support Area

Located approximately 150-meters north of the entrances to Tunnel No. 3 is the main administration and support area. Additional indications of continued and increased activity are observable in the area. Lumber piles are visible both by the entrance to the main administration and support area and within the former greenhouse currently being used for storage. Compared to an image earlier in April, changes to the size of the piles of stored lumber suggest ongoing construction of Tunnel No. 3 and the main administrative and support area. A new building is under construction in the northeast corner of the courtyard, while a volleyball game is underway in the lower courtyard.3

Overview of the main administration and support area. Click to enlarge. (Copyright © Airbus DS 2022)
Close-up view of the main administration and support area showing the workers playing volleyball and the presence of two lumber piles. Click to enlarge. (Copyright © Airbus DS 2022)

Tunnels No. 1, No. 2, and No. 4

Satellite images show minimal activity at Tunnel No. 2 (North Portal) and no activity (e.g., excavation, vehicles present, etc.) at Tunnel No. 4 (West Portal). Its portal and the hillside above it have been collapsed and blocked by rubble from the disabling in 2018. The extent of any actual damage inside these tunnels is unclear. Tunnel No. 1 (East Portal) has remained abandoned, with its portal collapsed, since shortly after its use for North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006.

Close-up view of Tunnel No. 2 and Tunnel No. 4. Click to enlarge. (Copyright © Airbus DS 2022)
Close-up view of Tunnel No. 1. Click to enlarge. (Copyright © Airbus DS 2022)

Although some sources suggest the seventh nuclear test could occur between May and September of this year, the date of a seventh nuclear test will undoubtedly depend exclusively upon the personal decision of Kim Jong-un.4 Current satellite imagery indicates that preparations are well underway and should not be discounted as insignificant activity.

References

Show 4 Footnotes
  1. “N. Korea will likely conduct new nuke test between May and September: gov’t expert,” Yonhap, April 28, 2022, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20220428007700325?section=national/defense.
  2. Furukawa, Katsuhisa, “Developments at the DPRK’s Punggye-ri Nuclear Weapon Test Site since December 2021,” Open Nuclear Network, March 20, 2022, https://opennuclear.org/publication/developments-dprks-punggye-ri-nuclear-weapon-test-site-december-2021; and Schmerler, Dave and Jeffery Lewis, “Changes at Punggye-ri,” Arms Control Wonk, March 7, 2022,  https://www.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/1215261/changes-at-punggye-ri/; and Heinonen, Olli, Peter Makowsky, Jack Liu, and Jenny Town, “Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site: Work Continues Around South Portal,” 38 North, April 14, 2022, https://www.38north.org/2022/04/punggye-ri-nuclear-test-site-work-continues-around-south-portal/.
  3. Volleyball is popular in North Korea and games have been imaged at Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site on several occasions, dating back to 2006. In 2017, 137 days before the sixth and latest nuclear test, three concurrent volleyball games were imaged in the area.
  4. “N. Korea will likely conduct new nuke test between May and September: gov’t expert,” Yonhap, April 28, 2022, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20220428007700325?section=national/defense.