FILE - Satellite image provided by GeoEye shows the area around the Yongbyon nuclear facility in Yongbyon, North Korea.
FILE - Satellite image provided by GeoEye shows the area around the Yongbyon nuclear facility in Yongbyon, North Korea.
FILE – Satellite image provided by GeoEye shows the area around the Yongbyon nuclear facility in Yongbyon, North Korea.

By Steven L Herman – BANGKOK — Speculation is growing that North Korea is planning to conduct an underground nuclear test to coincide with President Obama’s visit to the peninsula this week.

South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense is on an around-the-clock alert after detecting activity at the Punggye-ri testing site in North Korea.

Kim Min-seok, a defense ministry spokesman, said intelligence matters make it difficult to reveal precisely the activities detected at Punggye-ri, but numerous activities there lead analysts to believe that the North could conduct a nuclear test within a short period of time. He added that there is the possibility the North is trying to merely act like it is making preparations, as it has done in the past. South Korea and the United States, Kim said, are sharing information about what they are detecting.

This would be North Korea’s fourth nuclear test. The previous underground explosions, in defiance of warnings from the international community, were carried out in 2006, 2009, and last year. All took place at Punggye-ri, in a remote eastern part of the country.

Spokesman Kim said the military top brass are thoroughly prepared for a fourth one to occur at any time. The ministry and Joint Chiefs of Staff established on Monday a crisis management task force in order to strengthen the military readiness posture in anticipation of a North Korean nuclear test.

Pyongyang threatened last month to carry out a new type of nuclear test. It gave no details.

In 2010, North Korea unveiled a uranium enrichment program that would give it a steady fuel supply for a nuclear arsenal. After the 2013 test, analysts said they were unable to determine if the North had used highly enriched uranium as the fuel. The first two tests were believed to have been fueled by the country’s small plutonium stockpile.


A veteran journalist, Steven L Herman is the Voice of America Asia correspondent.

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