(PYONGYANG, North Korea) — As North Korea prepares to launch its controversial rocket this week, recent satellite images show they are also readying for a third nuclear underground test, according to South Korean media quoting anonymous government officials.
The North is reportedly in the final stages of excavating new tunnels at its Punggye-ri site in Kilju, North Hamgyong province, where they conducted two nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. U.S. commercial satellite photos show piles of dirt being moved in from other areas starting last month. An underground nuclear test requires massive amounts of dirt to fill up the tunnels.
Experts in Seoul, South Korea, say the nuclear test preparation is a calculated move in case the U.S. does not deliver the food aid it had promised on Feb. 29. Washington and Pyongyang had reached a significant deal then to give 240,000 metric tons of nutritional assistance in return for suspension of North Korea’s nuclear program and missile tests.
“This is their hidden card to make sure they get that,” said Baek Seung-joo, a North Korea specialist at Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.
But North Korea on March 16 announced it will launch a satellite into orbit between April 12 to 16 to commemorate the 100th birth year of its late-founder Kim Il Sung. The U.S. then stated that the planned food assistance would be suspended.
The international community has strongly condemned the launch, saying that what North Koreans call “a satellite for peaceful purposes” is actually a cover for testing a long-range missile as both require similar technology. Experts say the Unha-3 rocket could be a test for missiles far enough to reach the U.S., but the North is not believed to have the technology to mount a nuclear warhead on it yet.
In a rare move, Pyongyang has invited foreign journalists to the Tongchang-ri missile launch pad to witness the rocket taking off.
“They invited to show the world that this is not a breach of the deal with the U.S. since it is a rocket, not a missile weapon. So if Americans won’t give that food aid which they desperately need, they can say you broke the deal, so we are going ahead and testing another nuclear bomb,” said Baek.
Neighboring South Korea and Japan have stated that their militaries are prepared to shoot down the rocket if any parts fall in their territories. North Korea’s Foreign Ministry has threatened that it would consider any attempt to strike the Unha-3 to be a declaration of war.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Paul Cruickshank and Michael Pearson, CNN