North Korea is digging tunnels at a site where it has launched two nuclear tests, suggesting it is preparing a third, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said yesterday, a development that would trigger concern across the region.
The North was excavating several tunnels before picking the most suitable, Yonhap said, citing an unnamed South Korean government source.
“South Korean and US intelligence authorities have spotted North Korea building several other underground mines at Punggye-ri where it had run two nuclear tests,” the unidentified source was quoted as saying. “It is judged to be clear evidence of preparing for a third nuclear test.”
Military talks broke down between the two sides this month, dealing a setback to the resumption of the six-party negotiations, which the North walked out of more than two years ago.
While the two sides are not talking, the risk of what both sides calls a “provocation” increases. Analysts have said acts of brinkmanship by the North could include military drills or attack, or the testing of a missile or nuclear device.
North Korea has said it wants to return to the broader negotiations, but Seoul and Washington have questioned its sincerity about denuclearizing — pointing to its revelations in November about a uranium-enrichment program.
Pyongyang says the program is for peaceful energy-producing purposes, but regional powers, including China, have expressed concerns about the facility that opens a second route to make a nuclear bomb after its plutonium program.
The North was likely to conduct a plutonium-fueled test, mindful of opposition from China to the uranium enrichment, the source told Yonhap.
In December, an institute of South Korea’s foreign ministry said the North could carry out a third nuclear test this year to strengthen the credentials of its young leader-in-waiting, Kim Jong-un.
Satellite images also showed North Korea had likely completed a second long-range missile launchpad, an expert said last week.
In related news, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak yesterday said he wants “genuine” talks with the North, days after Pyongyang refused any further dialogue with Seoul.
The presidential Blue House also quoted Lee as saying that the North must change its behavior.
In other developments, a South Korean court has ordered the government to grant refugee status to a Chinese man who spent years helping North Korean defectors, saying he could face persecution back home.
The Korean-Chinese man, surnamed Kim, turned to Seoul’s administrative court after the Justice Ministry denied his application for refugee status, a court official said yesterday.
The man had offered shelter and transport to people fleeing the North over a number of years before moving to South Korea in 2000 to find work.
He applied for refugee status last year after learning that a former associate in China had been executed for helping defectors and Chinese police suspected he had acted as an accomplice, Yonhap said.
The ministry rejected Kim’s application on the grounds that he did not play a major role in helping defectors and would likely only face light punishment if he returned to China.
However, the administrative court said that those helping North Korean defectors faced up to life in jail and said Kim could face jail time if he returned, Yonhap reported.