The Korea Herald/Asia News Network
Fresh alarm is being raised over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, after a report that at least 200 people died in an accident at the country’s nuclear test site. Japan’s Asahi TV on Tuesday reported that at least 200 people died and 100 were trapped when a tunnel collapsed at the Punggye-ri test site.
The collapse happened days after North Korea conducted its sixth and largest underground nuclear test in September, provoking fears that the Punggye-ri site may be falling apart.
On Monday, Korea Meteorological Administration chief Nam Jae-cheol said that another detonation could possibly prompt a “collapse of the test site” and spill radioactive materials into the atmosphere near China’s border.
“Based on our analysis of satellite imagery, we judge that there is a hollow space, which measures about 60 to 100 meters [in length], at the bottom of Mantapsan [mountain] in the Punggye-ri site,” Nam told lawmakers. “So, should another nuke test occur, there is the possibility [of a collapse].”
Days after the nuclear explosion in September, commercial satellite images showed apparent signs of multiple landslides around the mountainous site, which experts described as “more numerous and widespread” compared to previous experiments.
Concerned about nuclear waste contamination, Chinese scientists reportedly warned Pyongyang to relocate the test site, as Mantapsan mountain, about 80 kilometers from the North Korea-China border, was at risk of collapse, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post said.
North Korea’s latest nuclear test on September 3, which is also believed to be its strongest yet, may have dealt a heavy blow to its topography. The South Korean Meteorological Administration said the test caused an artificial magnitude 5.7 earthquake, while the US Geological Survey and Chinese government measured it at 6.3.Smaller tremors followed, which many saw as aftershocks of the detonation.
But a US think tank said that “for the time being,” Pyongyang has no plans to abandon the Punggye-ri test site. Although substantial damage to the tunnels is suspected, similar nuclear tests conducted at the US Nevada Test Site and former Soviet nuclear test sites did not lead to site abandonment, according to analysis from 38 North of the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
“North Korea currently has two options regarding military provocations – conducting an intercontinental ballistic missile test or a nuclear test,” Koh Yoo-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University said.
“However, if its nuclear test site [of Punggye-ri] is exhausted, there won’t be another nuclear experiment anytime soon,” he said.
On the possibility of an atmospheric nuclear test, Koh said that such decision entails a massive risk at the moment with US President Donald Trump’s scheduled visit to South Korea next week. At the UN General Assembly in New York last month, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho told reporters that Pyongyangis considering dropping a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean.
“The North will think twice before launching any sort of military provocation around the time of President Trump’s Asia tour. The regime will weigh the current situation and keep close tabs on how the situation shifts after the tour,” Koh added. The Seoul-based expert also ruled out the option of a submarine-launched ballistic missile, citing the North’s current lack of infrastructure.
On Wednesday North Korea slammed US President Donald Trump as “incurably mentally deranged” in a personal diatribe ahead of his first visit to Asia as head of state.
Trump and the North’s leader Kim Jong-un have traded threats of war and personal insults in recent months, heightening worries about a potential conflict on the divided Korean peninsula.
Trump has warned of “fire and fury”, telling the UN General Assembly that the US would “totally destroy North Korea” if it had to defend itself or its allies. The US president is due in Asia at the weekend and ahead of his arrival the North’s state-run news agency lashed out.
“He absolutely needs medicine for curing his psychical disorder,” KNCA said.
The US has deployed jet fighters and aircraft carriers near the peninsula following the North’s nuclear test in September, which also saw the United Nations impose an eighth set of sanctions on Pyongyang.
A North Korean defector on Wednesday told the US Congress a domestic uprising could lead to the collapse of Kim Jong-un’s regime, but warned against military intervention, reports Agence France-Presse.
Thae Yong-ho, one of the highest ranking officials to have defected in recent years, told the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House of Representatives how his homeland had evolved since Kim came to power in 2011 following the death of his father Kim Jong-il.
“While on the surface Kim Jong-un seems to have consolidated his power through this reign of terror, simultaneously there are great and unexpected changes taking place within North Korea,” said the former deputy ambassador to Britain, who fled to South Korea in August 2016.
“The free markets are flourishing,” he said, adding: “As more and more people get used to free and capitalist style markets, the state-owned socialist economic system becomes increasingly forgotten about.”
Thae added that the country’s welfare system has collapsed, and that “millions of civil servants, army officers and security forces are dependent on bribes and state assets’ embezzlement for their survival.”
He added that, “it is necessary to reconsider whether we have tried all non-military options before we decide that military action against North Korea is all that is left.“We have to see the human sacrifice from this military option.”
On Wednesday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe marked the official start of his third term with a vow to increase the pressure on North Korea, which flew two missiles over Japan earlier this year.
Abe said the global community should tighten the screws on Pyongyang until it “asks to come back to the negotiation table promising to change their policies”.
*Originally posted on Inquirer