After a failed launch of its BM-25 Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile on Friday, North Korea may be gearing up for a fifth nuclear test. Reports citing South Korean government sources with knowledge of recent activity near North Korea’s nuclear test site, Punggye-ri, said the fifth nuclear test may take place soon. North Korea’s Workers’ Party Congress will convene in May for it’s first meeting in 35 years.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency notes that “a sharp increase in vehicle and human activities at North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site” have been detected recently. “Compared to last month, the frequency of vehicle, workforce and equipment movements increased two- to threefold recently,” Yonhap notes, citing “multiple government sources.” “Related officials concluded that it is a convincing sign that North Korea is preparing for its fifth nuclear test, and they are keeping close tabs on the situation,” government sources told Yonhap.
Friday’s Musudan test coincided with the 104th birthday of Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea. The recent spate of North Korean provocations, including January’s test of a purported thermonuclear device and February’s launch of the Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite, coincided with Kim Jong-un and Kim Jong-il’s birthdays respectively. The failure of Friday’s Musudan launch may prompt Kim Jong-un to carry out a fifth nuclear test.
Independent analysis of satellite imagery published by 38 North ahead of Kim Il-sung’s birthday on Friday showed little evidence of planning for a nuclear test “in the next few days.” Jack Liu’s post on April 13th looked at satellite imagery of Punggye-ri from April 9 and found “no apparent activity at either the South or West Portals” of the testing site. All of North Korea’s underground nuclear tests since 2006 have taken place near Punggye-ri, including the January test, which is thought to have taken place further underground than previous tests.
Given that there was no notable activity at Punggye-ri as of April 9 and South Korean government sources confirm increased activity since the failure of Friday’s ballistic missile launch, it may well be likely that Kim Jong-un has directed a hasty nuclear detonation to proffer a show of nuclear force ahead of May’s Party Congress.
North Korea has been unusually busy in signaling advancements in its nuclear and ballistic missile programs over the past few months. In March, it revealed, for the first time, a compact nuclear device. Other releases have shown, among other developments, the testing of solid fuel ballistic missile engines and reentry-ready missile nose cones. If Pyongyang does decide to test another nuclear device soon, it may declare that it has successfully detonated a compact device that is ready for mating with its KN-08 and KN-14 inter-continental ballistic missiles.