An earthquake detected Friday in a town near North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site, the fourth such event in less than a week, could have caused serious damage to the facility, experts speculated, with some saying it could put future tests there out of the question.
According to The Washington Post, the 2.7 magnitude tremor was identified by South Korean officials, who placed it 34 miles northweast of Kilju, the town that houses the nuclear test facility. While the quake wasn’t man-made — which would have indicated a nuclear test — the area isn’t one where earthquakes usually occur naturally.
A 2.9 magnitude quake struck the region on Thursday, leading to speculation that Pyongyang may have conducted another nuclear test even though the size of the tremor was significantly smaller than any of the seismic events caused by prior North Korean tests. The latest quake, however, seems to have shifted the consensus on just what caused it — and the implications for North Korea’s nuclear program could be devastating for the Hermit Kingdom.
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“The officials, who requested anonymity citing department rules, said they believe the four quakes probably happened because the underground nuclear test on Sept. 3 weakened or affected the tectonic plate structures in the area,” The Post reported. Other conjectures included landslides and the collapse of Punggye-ri site infrastructure, such as tunnels.
“The officials declined to say how the recent quakes might have affected the area and the test site, where all of North Korea’s nuclear bomb tests have taken place. But some civilian experts said North Korea may stop using the site.”
“The explosion from the Sept. 3 test had such power that the existing tunnels within the underground testing site might have caved in,” Kim So Gu, head researcher at the Korea Seismological Institute, told the U.K. Express. “I think the Punggye-ri region is now pretty saturated. If it goes ahead with another test in this area, it could risk radioactive pollution.”
Other experts concurred, saying that testing a larger nuclear weapon at Punggye-ri would be “potentially suicidal.” That’s not just because of the radioactive fallout or the weakened tectonic plate structures, according to Seoul National University nuclear engineering professor Kune Yull Suh. Such a test would also run the risk of setting off an eruption at Mount Paektu, 60 miles from the test facility.
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While Suh speculated that North Korea could conduct its next nuclear tests in the stratosphere, the loss of the Punggye-ri site would be a massive setback for North Korea’s nuclear program, particularly as Kim Jong Un has sought to dramatically accelerate Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.
Of course, none of this has been confirmed yet, but there aren’t a whole lot of other plausible explanations. North Korean state media has stayed quiet about the earthquakes, a clear sign that they weren’t something Pyongyang wanted the world to know about.
There’s also evidence the last test, which registered 6.9 on the Richter Scale, had already inflicted significantly greater environmental disruption than previous tests. Washington-based North Korea-centric blog 38 North reported in September that they had intelligence indicating that after the Sept. 3 test, “disturbances are more numerous and widespread than seen after any of the North’s previous five tests, and include additional slippage in pre-existing landslide scars and a possible subsidence crater.”
If accurate, these reports indicate nothing short of a catastrophe for Pyongyang’s atomic weapons program. Normally, that would be good news for the United States and the rest of the world. However, given Kim Jong Un’s unpredictability — especially in the face of setbacks — it’s anyone’s guess what havoc this disaster may wreak.
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