North Korea Revamps Nuclear Weapons Site, Tests Another Missile

Resumption of nuclear weapons testing?

Just days after North Korea tested another ballistic missile, on March 5, satellite images have emerged indicating the country could be gearing up to resume nuclear weapons testing. The imagery shows signs of repairs and new construction at the Punggye-Ri nuclear testing site, which was the world's only active nuclear testing site until Pyongyang declared it was dismantled in 2018 after a rapprochement with the U.S. and South Korea. The main nuclear reactor facility at Yongbyon also appears to be in full production, possibly to produce nuclear-weapons fuel. The South Korean, Japanese, and U.S. governments, along with eight others, condemned North Korea’s actions and urged the UN Security Council to respond.

Not just attention-seeking . . .

Pyongyang often fires off weapons to mark key domestic, regional, and international events, such as the recent missile test just days before yesterday’s presidential election in South Korea. On April 25, North Korea will commemorate its most important national holiday, the birthday of its founding father, the late Kim Il-sung, and may use the occasion to test more missiles. But there is also speculation that Pyongyang may be laying the groundwork for resuming intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear bomb tests later this year, a turn of events suggesting Pyongyang is not merely seeking attention. As an indication of the seriousness of the situation, the U.S. increased surveillancein the Yellow Sea on March 7. Some experts suggest that the preoccupation with the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war could make co-ordinating an international response to North Korea extremely difficult. In the meantime, Pyongyang is likely to remain firmly committed to advancing its nuclear weapons capabilities, as high-ranking Pyongyang officials believe Ukraine would not have been invaded if it had not given up its nuclear weapons.

A hawkish turn in South Korea . . .

North Korea's weapons build-up will certainly complicate arms control and nuclear disarmament efforts in the region, especially with South Korea’s hawkish new president, Yoon Suk-yeol. Yoon lambasted outgoing President Moon Jae-in's peaceful engagement policy towards North Korea, and supports exerting pressure on Pyongyang through international sanctions and even deploying U.S. nuclear weapons in South Korea in the case of a national security emergency. Under Yoon, military ties with the U.S. are expected to expand and inter-Korean co-operation is unlikely to return.