The entrance to a tunnel at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. (Joint Press Corps)

Military units remain at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site despite North Korea having completed technical preparations for its seventh nuclear test. The units appear to be carrying out unnecessary construction near the test site to confuse outside observers.

According to a high-ranking Daily NK source in North Korea on Friday, North Korea has completed the final technical preparations at its nuclear test site at Punggye-ri, Kilju County, North Hamgyong Province. All North Korea would need to do is place nuclear material in the tunnel and seal it to carry out a nuclear test at any time.

However, despite the fact that the Seventh Regiment of the First Brigade and the 131st Nuclear Guidance Bureau — sent to Punggye-ri to restore the tunnels and install equipment — have completed their duties, they are being kept at the site. North Korean authorities have even ordered the Seventh Regiment to build a metal fence near the site.

Ordinary North Koreans already have a difficult time getting anywhere near the Punggye-ri test site due to the rugged terrain and multiple layers of security checkpoints that surround it. Despite this, the authorities ordered the erecting of the fence ostensibly to bolster security.

In fact, the Seventh Regiment is rarely tasked with simple construction duties like erecting metal fences. It is a specialized technical unit mobilized only during important weapon development tests that require strict security.

Many soldiers in the area think the order is strange, according to the source. 

“In the past, when the preparations for a nuclear test were complete, [the authorities] would leave one platoon at the site and withdraw the rest. But this time, they are leaving two whole units at the site, even though the preparations are complete,” said the source. “It appears they plan to expand preparations for nuclear tests. Or it’s just for show.”

The source’s report suggests that the authorities are either stationing the technical units at Punggye-ri to prepare for another nuclear test or are engaged in unnecessary construction to confuse South Korean and US intelligence agencies using satellites to watch North Korea’s activities.

Meanwhile, some North Koreans say at least two additional nuclear tests are “necessary” this year, including a test of a small tactical nuclear weapon along with that of a thermonuclear device.

The source said that North Korean authorities have already carried out six tests of nuclear detonation devices. He noted that four of the six tests were successful, but which of the tests succeeded and which failed remains unknown.

Leading US and Chinese foreign policy and security officials — including US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Yang Jiechi, a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s politburo — discussed the North Korean nuclear issue during a meeting in Luxembourg on June 13.

At the meeting, Sullivan expressed concern over China’s use of its veto to shoot down a UN Security Council proposal to place sanctions on North Korea, stressing that the North Korean nuclear issue was an area where Washington and Beijing could cooperate.

China, meanwhile, says a relaxation of sanctions on North Korea is needed to resolve the nuclear issue. North Korea’s ultimate decision whether to carry out a test may be influenced by China given that a nuclear test would signal a significant challenge to Chinese foreign policy. 

Translated by David Black. Edited by Robert Lauler.

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