North Korea says it may still go ahead and test a new kind of nuclear device following U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Seoul, but is keeping analysts guessing as to when that test might take place.
It is notoriously difficult to divine the intentions of North Korea’s isolated regime, particularly on nuclear tests when most crucial activity happens underground. Commercial satellite imagery is relatively infrequent and provides only a snapshot of what’s happening.
According to the newest images that have been released to the public, activity continues near tunnel entrances at the northeastern mountain testing site of Punggye-ri, where North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests since 2006, the latest in February 2013.
Experts believe the country has developed a handful of crude nuclear devices and is working toward building a warhead small enough to mount on a long-range missile, although most experts say that goal may take years to achieve.
Regarding what Pyongyang might mean by “a new kind of test”, Lim Eul Chul, a North Korea expert at South Korea’s Kyungnam University, said it could simultaneously conduct two nuclear blasts in two underground tunnels to show off its capability.
Another possibility: North Korea might try to detonate miniaturized forms of either plutonium- or uranium-based bombs, said nuclear expert Whang Joo-ho of Kyung Hee University in South Korea.
Lim at Kyungnam University said North Korea won’t likely face tougher U.N. sanctions even if it conducts a fourth nuclear test because of strained ties between the U.S. and Russia, both veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council, over the Ukraine issue. He added that China, also embroiled in disputes with the U.S. over Japan, won’t support tougher sanctions on North Korea, though it might agree on some form of punishment.