North Korea has the capability to conduct a third nuclear test within two weeks, U.S. nuclear experts claimed Monday. "North Korea appears to have an underground tunnel ready for testing," write Siegfried Hecker, the director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, and Frank Pabian, a senior nonproliferation analyst at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
"Commercial satellite imagery shows a recently excavated 'south portal' for a tunnel in Punggye-ri, situated very close to the tunnels for the first two tests" in 2006 and 2009, they add.
The two experts speculate the next bomb test will be based on highly enriched uranium, "or multiple bombs will be tested simultaneously, using both [uranium] and plutonium." The North "has a very small plutonium stockpile, sufficient for only four to eight bombs," they say. "All the same, it appears that plutonium is a dead end for Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal because it shut down and has not restarted its five megawatt electric plutonium production reactor."
In November 2010, Pyongyang invited Hecker and showed him a uranium enrichment facility with more than 1,000 centrifuges at Yongbyon in a bid to demonstrate its capability to develop uranium-based nuclear weapons.
But whether and when North Korea conducts another nuclear test “will depend on how high a political cost Pyongyang is willing to bear," the report says. "Beijing has continued to expand aid and trade with North Korea, but has also applied significant diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang not to test. Moscow recently forgave nearly $11 billion in North Korean debt, signed a new border treaty, and is still in the game for building a gas pipeline going through the North to South Korea, but Russia is also on record as opposing continued nuclear testing."
The North would therefore have to be ready to handle tensions with these two countries and further consequences, it adds.
In April, when rumors of an impending test first surfaced, the North Korean Foreign Ministry said the country had "no plans to conduct a nuclear test." But the regime hinted at resuming nuclear testing last month when it said, "Circumstances compel us to review the nuclear issue in a wholesale way" in the wake of an alleged foreign plot to destroy statues of regime founder Kim Il-sung.