- Satellite image of the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility acquired on January 16, 2024, shows activity at the facility’s Main Administration and Support Area, Yongam-dong Command Center Area, and Kuok-tong Support Compound.
- However, it is likely that the activity in the Administration and Support Area is related to the ongoing maintenance of Tunnel No. 3 as no activity has been observed at the collapsed Tunnels No. 1, 2, and 4.
- The activity at the Yongam-dong Command Center Area and Kuok-tong Support Compound appears to be related to routine caretaker maintenance.
- Any activity in or around Tunnel No. 3 is always of concern as both the United States and South Korea have assessed North Korea as having completed all the required preparations for conducting a seventh nuclear test from that tunnel.
Satellite imagery of the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility, identified as the “Northern Nuclear Testing Site” by North Korea, collected during the past several weeks shows evidence of recent activity at the northern Main Administrative and Support Area, the Yongam-dong Command Center, and the Kuok-tong Support Area.
While this activity appears low-level, it indicates that North Korea has undertaken a concerted commitment to maintaining the progress achieved in reenabling Tunnel No. 3 and the general health of the facility. Since 2020, both the United States and South Korea have assessed North Korea as having completed all the required preparations for conducting a seventh nuclear test from Tunnel No. 3.1 The reasons for the long-anticipated seventh nuclear test are unknown. Regardless, any activity in or around Tunnel No. 3 is always of concern for both the United States and South Korea. These concerns have become heightened in the wake of North Korea’s provocative ballistic missile tests over the past year as well as the January 16, 2024, statement ordering the abolishment of “the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country of the DPRK.”2
Although the actual decision to conduct a seventh nuclear test rests entirely in the hands of Kim Jong-un, the recent activity observed at the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility does not suggest imminent preparations for a seventh nuclear test.
Main Administration and Support Area
Following a fresh snowfall two weeks earlier, this January 16, 2024, satellite image of the Punggye-ri’s Main Administrative and Support Area shows that the main courtyard cleared of snow since January 5, three formations of personnel, the road between this area and the new portal for Tunnel No. 3 cleared of snow, and evidence of light vehicle traffic at the main Punggye-ri facility access road that terminates here.
Such level of activity has typically not been observed during the past year and indicates that North Korea has undertaken a concerted commitment to maintain the progress achieved in the reenabling of Tunnel No. 3 from the disabling process in 2018. Additionally, no recent vehicle or personnel tracks in the snow are observed along the rebuilt road between the Main Administrative and Support Area to the collapsed portals for Tunnels No. 2 and 4.
Tunnel No. 3
The new portal to Tunnel No. 3 (South Portal) is partially generally obscured in shadows of the January 16, 2024, satellite image, making it impractical to identify with certainty the degree of significant activity here, although there may be some. This condition is more challenging due to the off-nadir angle of the satellite image. However, it is evident that the main Punggye-ri facility access road in front of Tunnel No. 3 is clear, and the portions of the road heading south show evidence of probable light vehicle traffic. The former open-air sawmill immediately southeast of the portal is covered with snow and remains unused.
Tunnels No. 2 and No. 4
The rebuilt road leading north from the Main Administrative and Support Area to the collapsed portals for Tunnels No. 2 and No. 4 (North and West Portal) shows no indications of recent vehicle or personnel tracks in the snow or personnel tracks. Despite speculation in 2023 that Tunnel No. 4 would be reopened, this has not yet occurred. The portals for both tunnels remain as they have been since at least April 2023.3
Tunnel No. 1
As expected, the January 16, 2024, image continues to show no activity at Tunnel No. 1 (East Portal), which has been abandoned since shortly after being used for North Korea’s first nuclear test on October 9, 2006, and is believed to have collapsed.
Yongam-dong Command Center Area
Located approximately 6 kilometers south of the Main Administration and Support Area is the Yongam-dong Command Center Area for the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility. The January 16, 2024, satellite image shows what appear to be old vehicle tracks leading into the command center compound. Given the absence of snow, this road has recently witnessed some light vehicle traffic. Additionally, the small support area adjacent to the command compound shows both the partial clearing of snow and two personnel tracks through the snow. However, unlike the Main Administration and Support area, no personnel are observed. No activity is observed around the former guard barracks in the area. The nature of the activity observed here suggests that it is related to typical facility caretaker maintenance.
Evidence of probable light vehicle traffic is also observed along the section of the main Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility access road that runs through the Command Center area, although no vehicles are present.
Kuok-tong Support Compound
Approximately 730 meters south of the command center compound is the Kuok-tong Support Compound. The satellite image collected on January 16, 2024, shows significant snow clearing within the compound and personnel tracks through the snow from the compound to outbuildings. Once again, evidence of probable light vehicle traffic is observed along the section of the main Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility access the road that runs past the compound. As with the Command Center Area, activity observed here suggests that it is related to typical facility caretaker maintenance.
- “U.S. assesses North Korea could be ready to conduct a nuclear test this month,” Reuters, May 6, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/us-assesses-north-korea-could-be-ready-conduct-nuclear-test-this-month-2022-05-06/; “Bermudez Jr., Joseph S., and Victor Cha,” Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site: Imagery Supports ROK and U.S. Government Reservations about Permanent Disablement,” Beyond Parallel, October 17, 2019, https://beyondparallel.csis.org/punggye-ri-nuclear-test-site-imagery-supports-rok-and-u-s-government-reservations-about-permanent-disablement/; and Gwee-Geun Kim and Joon-Sam Lee, “N. Korea able to use Punggye-ri nuke testing site after restoration work: JCS,” Yonhap News, October 8, 2019, https://www.yna.co.kr/view/AKR20191008147151504. ↩
- “10th Session of 14th SPA of DPRK Held,” KCNA, January 16, 2024, http://www.kcna.kp/kp. ↩
- Bermudez Jr., Joseph S., Victor Cha and Jennifer Jun. “Punggye-ri Update: New Activity at Tunnel No. 4,” Beyond Parallel, May 4, 2023, https://beyondparallel.csis.org/punggye-ri-update-new-activity-at-tunnel-no-4/. ↩