WASHINGTON (AP) — North Korea has accelerated excavation at a site used for underground nuclear test explosions, though a test doesn't appear imminent, a U.S. research institute said Thursday.
The findings, based on satellite photographs, were released as Secretary of State John Kerry and his South Korean counterpart warned the North against any possible aggression.
The U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies said that the North likely started work last May on a new tunnel at the northeastern test site at Punggye-ri, where it has conducted its three previous nuclear explosions, the latest in February 2013. The institute estimates that the pile of earth excavated from it has doubled since the start of the year.
The findings are based on commercial satellite photographs, the latest taken Feb. 3. The analysis was provided to The Associated Press ahead of publication on the institute's website, 38 North.
It adds to doubts over North Korea's intentions.
Pyongyang has dialed down the threatening rhetoric it issued following the international condemnation of its last nuclear. The authoritarian government of young leader Kim Jong Un has since said it's willing to hold nuclear talks without preconditions and is now pushing for quick improvement of ties with rival South Korea.
Yet its nuclear and missile development appears to continue unabated.
Two weeks ago, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that the U.S. believes that North Korea has expanded the size of its uranium enrichment facility at its main nuclear complex and restarted a reactor that was used for plutonium production before it was shut down in 2007 — reversing a concession previously made in disarmament-for-aid negotiations with the U.S., China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. Clapper also said the North has taken initial steps toward fielding a road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, although it remains untested.
"We have yet to see evidence that North Korea is prepared to meet its obligations," Kerry said in Seoul Thursday. "Let me be clear; the United States will not accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state. We will not accept talks for the sake of talks, and the DPRK must show that it will live up to its commitments," he said, referring to the North by the initials for its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
The U.S. is "ready and able to deter North Korean aggression," he told a news conference. "It is time for the North to choose the path of peace and refrain from provocations or using excuses to avoid the responsibility that they bear."
South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said that both Seoul and Washington "stand fully prepared against any potential situation given the mixed signals from North Korea, even as it continues a charm offensive."
On Wednesday, senior North and South Korean officials held their highest-level talks in years and are set to meet again Friday to finalize arrangements for their first reunions since 2010 of families divided by the 1950-53 Korean War. The emotional reunions are set to start next week, although a stumbling block remains.
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