Punggye-ri Test Site Damaged, But Still Useable, Experts Contend

Two different teams of Chinese geologists reported that North Korea’s sixth nuclear test damaged the mountain over the Punggye-ri test site, which North Korea promised to shut down in May. Neither research team concluded that the mountain damage rendered the site unusable, despite recent media reports to the contrary.

Although Chinese researcher Zhao Lianfeng at the Institute of Earth Science at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who was not part of either research team, contended that these findings signify that the test site has been “wrecked” beyond repair, the research teams did not reach this conclusion and U.S. analysts using satellite imagery also believe areas of the test site remain viable for future tests.

Wen Lianxing, a geologist with the University of Science and Technology of China, led a research team which concluded that Mount Mantap collapsed following North Korea’s September 2017 nuclear test. North Korea has conducted all six nuclear test explosions under the mountain at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site.

Liu Junqing at the Jilin Earthquake Agency with the China Earthquake Administration argued that a rock collapse after the sixth nuclear test created a “chimney” in the mountain that would allow radioactive fallout from nuclear tests into the air.

However, damage to the mountain does not necessarily mean the test site is no longer functioning. “[T]here is no basis to conclude that the Punggye-ri nuclear test site is no longer viable for future nuclear testing,” the Washington-based think tank 38 North wrote on April 23. While one area of the test site was abandoned following the sixth nuclear test, new tunneling was observed at other areas of the site, the commentary added.

After analyzing new satellite imagery, Frank V. Pabian, Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. and Jack Liu observedin commentary for 38 North on April 30 that while one part of the test site may be unusable due to Mount Mantap’s collapse, the test site is not useless because other areas remain intact.

South Korean Presidential Spokesman Yoon Young-chan also reported that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has stated that two test tunnels at the site remain in good condition.