A satellite photo shows the suspected North Korean nuclear test site. (Korea Aerospace Research…)
SEOUL — North Korea appears to be preparing for a third nuclear test, digging a new underground tunnel at a site where previous tests were conducted in 2006 and 2009, South Korea's official news agency reported.
Photos taken by a U.S. satellite reveal the excavation work at the Punggye-ri site in the country's northeast, the Yonhap agency reported Sunday.
The work comes as North Korea also prepares to launch a satellite, called Kwangmyongsong-3, sometime this week to commemorate the centennial of founding father Kim Il Sung's birth.
Although the North insists the satellite launch has no military implications, analysts say the technology involved is essentially the same as for testing a long-range missile. The United States and its allies consider the launch to be a blatant violation of a deal struck with North Korea on Feb. 29 to halt its weapons program in exchange for 240,000 metric tons of food aid. As a result, the food offer has been withdrawn.
In Washington on Monday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said she was "not in a position to confirm one way or the other" if there were signs that North Korea was planning a nuclear test. But any such test "would be equally bad" to a missile launch and would be "highly provocative" and "pose a threat to regional security," she said.
Experts here expect that the satellite launch will be carried out despite international pressure.
"While the North is surely affected by the food aid being cut off, they will push on with their plans for the rocket launch," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. "We can put on pressure to them by imposing sanctions, but they will use the missile and nuclear [program] to pressure the U.S. back."
South Korean intelligence officials told Yonhap that a pile of earth and sand at the entrance to a tunnel at the nuclear site has been growing since last month, just as it did before the previous tests. Those tests also followed rocket launches.
"North Korea is making clandestine preparations for a third nuclear test at Punggye-ri in North Hamkyong province, where it conducted two nuclear tests in the past," an official told Yonhap on condition of anonymity.
South Korea's parliamentary election is scheduled for Wednesday, prompting opposition politicians to question the purpose of the intelligence leak.
"Already a month ago there have been reports about a possible third nuclear test by North Korea," Park Yong-jin, a representative of the opposition Democratic Unity Party, said during a media briefing. "North Koreans themselves have hinted that along with the launch of Kwangmyongsong-3, they might conduct the third nuclear test. It seems rather suspicious that the intelligence authorities would highlight this issue and bring media and people's attention to it only three days prior to the legislative election."
Choi is a news assistant in The Times' Seoul bureau.
Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.