UNITED NATIONS (AP) — U.N. experts say North Korea is paving the way for additional nuclear tests with new preparations at its northeastern test site and continues to develop its ability to produce a key component for nuclear weapons.
The experts also said in key excerpts from their latest report obtained late Thursday by The Associated Press that North Korea conducted two major hacks this year, resulting in the theft of “hundreds of millions of dollars” worth of cryptocurrency assets.
They said Pyongyang also continues to illegally import oil and export coal in violation of UN sanctions, using the same companies, networks and ships.
South Korean and US intelligence officials said they had detected efforts by North Korea to prepare the northeastern Punggye-ri test site for another nuclear test. It would be the North’s seventh since 2006 and first since September 2017, when it claimed to have detonated a thermonuclear bomb to fit on its intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The panel’s report to the UN Security Council provides some details on the work being carried out in the area by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the country’s official name.
The experts said they observed that the DPRK began re-excavation work in March at the entrance to Tunnel 3 in Punggye-ri “and reconstructed support buildings that were initially dismantled in May 2018.”
“Satellite imagery showed an increased number of vehicle tracks around this secondary entrance from mid-February 2022, followed by the construction of a new building next to the entrance in early March,” the commission said. “A pile of timber, possibly for use in building the tunnel structure, was also located around the same time.”
He added that, “Heaps of soil from the excavation of the tunnel around the entrance were observed during this period.”
“Work at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site paves the way for additional nuclear tests to develop nuclear weapons,” the experts said, adding that this is a goal stated at the Eighth Congress of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea in January 2021.
In another aspect of the DPRK’s nuclear program, analysts said satellite images last September showed North Korea expanding a uranium enrichment facility at its main Yongbyon nuclear complex, a sign it wanted to boost production of key bomb material.
The UN experts said in the new report: “The DPRK has continued to develop its capability to produce nuclear fissile material at the Yongbyon site.”
Nuclear negotiations between the United States and North Korea have been stalled since 2019 over disagreements over the DPRK’s request to lift crippling US-led sanctions and Washington’s demand for significant steps from Pyongyang toward denuclearization.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has expanded his ballistic missile program amid a diplomatic standoff, and analysts say another nuclear test would escalate his drive to consolidate the North’s status as a nuclear power and negotiate economic concessions and security concessions from a position of power.
The panel of experts said the DPRK continued to accelerate its missile programs, launching 31 missiles “combining ballistic and guidance technologies,” including six ICBMs and two “expressly described as ballistic weapons.” It said the DPRK also claimed to have advanced the development of “tactical nuclear weapons”.