By Pam Benson
Satellite imagery of a North Korean nuclear test site identifies what could be key installations that would likely play a prominent role if Kim Jong Un orders a test, which the government threatened to do on Thursday.
The analysis of the Pung-gye-Ri Nuclear Test site by U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s 38 North blog shows recently completed structures essential to an underground nuclear weapons test.
One is believed to be a command and control bunker. Another photo shows what appears to be a radio relay system that zigzags through a valley, which the 38North analysts believe could be used as part of a communications system linking the bunker to the North Korean leadership in Pyongyang.
"Located about 150 meters (164 yards) north of the test tunnel entrance, the bunker, used only when a test is about to be conducted, would contain equipment for controlling the nuclear device, managing instruments for gathering test data and communicating with authorities in Pyongyang," the report stated. "The bunker would also provide shelter for all personnel in the area."
The analysts compared imagery of the bunker site from October 2009, which showed excavation and construction activity, with photos from last year when the bunker entrance was clearly defined.
Last year, North Korea attempted twice to launch a satellite into orbit, a move the United States and other western nations claim was a cover for a test of its long range ballistic missile capability.
The first attempt in April failed when the rocket exploded shortly after take off, but North Korea said the second effort, in December, was successful.
The 38North analysis also describes the likely sequence of steps that would likely occur–based on the practices of other countries–if a test is ordered:
The United States is concerned that a long-range ballistic missile could be fitted with a nuclear warhead and could be capable of striking the mainland, although experts say North Korea does not have the expertise to do so.
There was speculation after each of the satellite launches that a nuclear test would follow soon after. North Korea's previous two nuclear tests were in 2006 and 2009 and occurred shortly after rocket launches.
The 38North analysis would indicate the key installations and equipment are now in place at Pung-gye-Ri where the next test is expected to take place.
But whether a test is imminent is tough for the United States to determine.
"We've seen, you know, no outward indications, but that doesn't tell you much," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters on Thursday.
"They have the capability, frankly, to conduct these tests in a way that make it very difficult to determine whether or not they are doing it," he said.
Panetta added that a detonation would be a violation of international law and said the United States was prepared to deal with any provocative behavior from the North Koreans.
Joel Wit, a former State Department official who manages the 38North website, said the prospects of a new test are ominous.
"With another nuclear test that could further advance Pyongyang's weapons program, we may be witnessing the slow-motion birth of a new small nuclear power in Asia that will threaten the United States and the region as well as international peace and stability," Wit told Security Clearance.