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Satellite imagery triggers fears that North Korea may be poised to resume nuclear weapon tests

Satellite imagery by Maxar showed three locations in Punggye-ri nuclear testing site where fresh activity had emerged.

Serious concerns have arisen that North Korea may be preparing to resume testing of nuclear weapons as fresh satellite imagery shows construction work being undertaken at the country’s nuclear testing site for the first time since it was shut down in 2018.

Images captured by satellite on Friday showed early signs of activity at the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site, including construction of a new building, repair of another building, according to a report by the California-based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS).

"The construction and repair work indicate that North Korea has made some decision about the status of the test site," a Reuters correspondent cited the report as saying.

The development comes in the backdrop of North Korea carrying out a series of missile tests in January which had emerged as a worrying factor both in its immediate neighbourhood and beyond.

U.N. nuclear watchdog chief Rafael Grossi told a meeting of the IAEA board on Monday that construction activities are also taking place at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear reactor site, which include “construction of an annex to the reported Centrifuge Enrichment Facility, the purpose of which has yet to be determined."

It is feared that this has the potential to create fuel for nuclear weapons.

Punggye-ri has been shut down after North Korea declared a moratorium on nuclear weapons tests in 2018. However, the country’s leader Kim Jong Un has said he is no longer committed to the moratorium after denuclearisation talks with the US got deadlocked since 2019.

According to a Reuters report, the CNS analysts said the changes at Punggye-ri occurred only in the past few days, and it is still difficult to conclude what precisely is being built or why.

"One possibility is that North Korea plans to bring the test site back to a state of readiness to resume nuclear explosive testing," the report said.

The CNS analysts cautioned the test site is many months, if not years, from being ready for new nuclear explosions.

"How long it would take North Korea to resume explosive testing at the site depends on the extent of the damage to the tunnels themselves, something we do not know with confidence," they wrote in the report. "It is also possible that North Korea will resume nuclear testing at another location."

Punggye-ri is North Korea's only known nuclear test site. It conducted six nuclear weapons tests in tunnels at the site from 2006 to 2017.

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