Analysts who keep track of North Korea’s nuclear activities stumbled on something a bit strange.
Observers have been anticipating a sixth North Korean nuclear test for weeks, citing high levels of activity around North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site. Analysts at 38 North, a research site run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, suggested that the test site appeared to be “primed and ready” for a another test. When the research team took a look at the site Sunday, they found North Koreans playing volleyball.
“We see that at three locations in the facility – in the main administrative area, at the support area, at the command center and at the guard barracks near the command center – they have volleyball games going on,” said 38 North expert Joe Bermudez, according to Reuters.
Bermudez offered two possible explanations. One, the nuclear test site is in “standby mode,” or two, the North Koreans, who know they are under observation and when the satellites pass over, are intentionally trying to confuse observers.
38 North detected extensive tunneling around Punggye-ri in early March. “The continued tunneling under Mt. Mantap via the North Portal has the potential for allowing North Korea to support additional underground nuclear tests of significantly higher explosive yields, perhaps up to 282 kilotons,” the report explained.
Observers spotted vehicles near one of the tunnel entrances on March 24. “They could be involved in the installation of instrumentation or even a nuclear device,” analysts pointed out.
Satellite images from the next day suggested that the North Koreans had run communication cables into the tunnels.
Analysts noticed “heightened activity” around the test site on March 28. A contingent of around 100 people were seen standing in formation in a courtyard.
Then, the test site went oddly quiet, causing observers to question whether a test was coming at all.
As tensions between Washington and Pyongyang flared last week, many Korea watchers expected a high-level provocation on April 15, the 105th anniversary of the birth of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. Reports from April 12 suggested that North Korea had placed a nuclear device in the tunnels at the test site.
That provocation never came, leading observers to take a second look. What did they find? Volleyball.
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