UN expert: North Korea is paving the way for new nuclear tests

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — North Korea is making new preparations for its northeastern test site, paving the way for more nuclear tests and continuing to develop its ability to produce key components of its nuclear weapons, United Nations experts said.

The experts also said in a key excerpt from the latest report obtained by The Associated Press late Thursday that North Korea has carried out two major hacking attacks this year that have resulted in the theft of “hundreds of millions of dollars” worth of cryptocurrency assets.

Pyongyang also continued to illegally import oil and export coal, in violation of UN sanctions, using the same companies, networks and ships, they said.

South Korean and U.S. intelligence officials said they found North Korea trying to prepare for another nuclear test at its Northeastern Punggye-ri test site. It would be North Korea’s seventh since 2006 and the first since September 2017, when it claimed to have detonated a thermonuclear bomb to install on its intercontinental ballistic missile.

The panel’s report to the UN Security Council provided some details of the work being carried out on the ground by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as the country is officially known.

Experts said they observed North Korea starting re-excavation work at the entrance to the Punggye-ri No. 3 tunnel in March, “and rebuilding the supporting structures that were originally demolished in May 2018.”

“Satellite imagery shows an increase in the number of vehicle tracks around this secondary entrance starting in mid-February 2022, followed by the construction of a new building near the entrance in early March,” the panel said. “Around the same time, it was also found that A pile of timber that might be used to build the tunnel structure.”

“During this period, we observed mounds of earth excavated from the tunnel around the entrance,” it added.

“The work at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site paves the way for further nuclear testing to develop nuclear weapons,” the experts said, adding that this was a goal raised at the eighth congress of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party. January 2021.

In another aspect of North Korea’s nuclear program, analysts said satellite images from last September showed North Korea was expanding a uranium enrichment plant at its main Yongbyon nuclear facility, a sign that it wanted to boost production of key bomb materials.

“North Korea continues to develop its capability to produce nuclear fissile material at the Yongbyon site,” UN experts said in the new report.

Nuclear talks between the U.S. and North Korea have stalled since 2019 amid disagreements over North Korea’s demands to lift severe U.S.-led sanctions and Washington’s demands for Pyongyang to take major steps toward nuclear disarmament.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un expanded his ballistic missile program during a diplomatic pause, and analysts said another nuclear test would escalate his brinkmanship aimed at cementing North Korea’s status as a nuclear power and negotiating economic and security concessions from a position of strength .

The panel said North Korea continued to accelerate its missile program, launching 31 missiles that “combined ballistic and guidance technologies,” including six intercontinental ballistic missiles and two “explicitly described as ballistic weapons.” North Korea also claims to have advanced the development of “tactical nuclear weapons,” it said.

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