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North Korea preparing for first nuclear test since 2017, warn experts

New satellite images of a North Korean nuclear facility suggest that Pyongyang is inching towards its first nuclear test since 2017, experts have warned, as Kim Jong Un ratchets up tensions on the Korean peninsula.

The commercial satellite images were collected this week and analysed by experts from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. They revealed the construction of buildings, movement of lumber and an increase in equipment and supplies immediately outside a new entrance to the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in the country’s north-east.

The images also showed personnel playing volleyball in the courtyard of the test site’s main administrative and support area.

“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,” said the authors of the CSIS study.

“Current satellite imagery indicates that preparations are well under way and should not be discounted as insignificant activity.”

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, said that “if the Kim regime wants to be provocative, it could test soon after South Korea’s new president takes office [on May 10] and before [US president Joe] Biden’s trip to Asia later in the month”.

“But in order to avoid offending Pyongyang‘s benefactors in Beijing, the next test will likely avoid dates close to China’s five-yearly Communist party Congress later in the year,” said Easley.

Kim presided over a military parade through the streets of Pyongyang this week, during which the regime flaunted a hypersonic glide vehicle, its “monster” Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile and a new solid fuel missile that was possibly designed to be launched from a submarine.

The North Korean leader also delivered a speech in which he stressed that the country’s nuclear weapons had a “secondary mission” beyond the “primary mission” of preventing war. Experts have warned that Kim might use his nuclear arsenal to assert control over the entire Korean peninsula.

Analysts noted that the US-led international sanctions regime instituted after North Korea’s last nuclear test in 2017 has failed to prevent Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme from growing steadily.

Diplomacy has stalled since the collapse of a summit at Hanoi in 2019 between Kim and then US president Donald Trump.

But Duyeon Kim, a Seoul-based senior fellow at the Center for New American Security think-tank, said that Washington had little choice but to stick to its demand that North Korea give up its nuclear weapons.

“It’s difficult to imagine that the Biden administration would ever scrap denuclearisation as the end goal,” she said. “If any US administration did that, then the supporters of the incoming conservative South Korean administration will demand Seoul make its own nuclear weapons, because they will perceive Washington to be unreliable in guaranteeing South Korea’s security.”

She added: “The longer the diplomatic stalemate, the more time North Korea has to perfect its nuclear weapons capability, build political leverage before negotiations and strengthen its grip on its nuclear arsenal. The problem is, Pyongyang continues to refuse to return to the dialogue table.”

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