China, Russia, and North Korea: A Triple Threat in Nuclear Tests?
As North Korea is predicted to conduct its seventh nuclear test next year after rebuilding its nuclear test site in 2022, China and Russia are also detected to be conducting construction work, such as tunnel excavation at their nuclear test sites.
According to the New York Times (NYT) on December 20 (local time), an analysis of commercial satellite images capturing the vicinity of the Lop Nur nuclear test site in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China shows that various building constructions and tunnel excavations have been ongoing since 2017.
Experts estimate that the depth of the new tunnel exceeds 500 m (1,640 feet), leading them to believe it is intended for nuclear testing purposes.
In addition to the tunnel work, new roads have been constructed around the nuclear test site. A road linking a military base roughly 120 km (75 miles) away has recently been paved. Furthermore, more than 30 buildings within an area of 3.2㎢ at the military base responsible for overseeing the Lop Nur nuclear test site have been reconstructed or newly erected since 2017.
In response to this news, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the construction of the Lop Nur nuclear test site is an “irresponsible claim that groundlessly exaggerates China’s nuclear threat.”
China, Reconstruction of Xinjiang Uighur Nuclear Test Site Facilities
However, based on the analysis of satellite images released in September this year, the director in charge of East Asia at the James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies pointed out that “the activity level at China’s nuclear test site is increasing,” and “China may be preparing to resume underground nuclear testing or secretly conducting low-yield nuclear tests.”
A nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace also said, “Considering all circumstances, it seems that China is preparing for a new nuclear test.”
According to the NYT, U.S. intelligence agencies have been monitoring the movements of the Lop Nur nuclear test site for several years. However, the U.S. intelligence community is cautious about why China expanded the facilities at Lop Nur, even though it has set an actual nuclear test schedule.
The analysis is that even if the expansion of the facilities for preparing for a nuclear test is true unless the U.S. and Russia move first, the possibility of China conducting a nuclear test first does not seem high, so there may be other intentions.
In addition to China’s movements, the U.S. is also closely monitoring Russia as there have been recent consecutive detections of nuclear test situations.
According to the Middlebury Institute, construction work, such as building additions, has been ongoing at the nuclear test site in the Novaya Zemlya archipelago in the Arctic region of Russia since 2021. It was reported to the U.S. intelligence community that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited the nuclear test site in person in August this year. Russia conducted a total of 130 nuclear tests in Novaya Zemlya during the Soviet era from 1955 to 1990.
In this situation, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law in November that nullifies the ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), making the possibility of resuming nuclear tests a reality.
However, experts have put forward the analysis that “the reconstruction of nuclear test sites and preparations in China and Russia are likely to respond in case the U.S. conducts a nuclear test.” There were movements detected for the resumption of nuclear tests in the U.S. during the Donald Trump administration, with reports stating that “serious consideration is being given to resuming nuclear tests.”
Military experts are greatly concerned about the expansion of nuclear facilities amid the all-out conflict between the U.S. and China and the heightened tension between the U.S. and Russia due to the Ukraine war.
Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in the U.S., said, “There are a lot of clues showing that Russia, China, and the U.S. might resume nuclear testing,” and “The threat of nuclear testing depends on how much the arms race between the U.S. and China, and the U.S. and Russia, will escalate.”
Concerns about a nuclear war have spread since Russia invaded Ukraine last February. When Russia failed to achieve its goal of occupying Ukraine in a short period and was pushed back by the Western military support for Ukraine, it pulled out the nuclear threat card.
In February of this year, President Putin remarked, “No one should have dangerous illusions that global strategic parity can be destroyed,” emphasizing that if the U.S. were to take specific actions, Russia would also consider ordering a nuclear test.
Doomsday Clock, 90 Seconds Faster Signifying Apocalypse
In its January announcement, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS), a U.S.-based scientific organization, moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock 90 seconds closer to midnight, symbolizing global destruction. This is the closest the clock has been to midnight since its introduction in 1947. The BAS has maintained the clock at 100 seconds to midnight since 2020.
The BAS warned that the world must recognize the terrible risk of escalating conflict, regardless of whether it is accidental, intentional, or due to a misunderstanding, especially in light of Russia’s de facto nuclear threat.
Recently, UN Secretary-General António Guterres stated, “This year, we face an alarming rise in global mistrust and division,” and argued that nations’ efforts to increase the accuracy of their nuclear weapons at a time when nearly 13,000 nuclear weapons are stockpiled worldwide, is a recipe for disaster.
According to CNN, there are nuclear test sites in the Nevada desert in the U.S., in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China, and in the Arctic Ocean in Russia. Comparing satellite images from 3 to 5 years ago, new tunnels, roads, storage facilities, and a surge in vehicle traffic have been detected at these sites.
These changes are analyzed as indications of potential future nuclear weapons tests. However, CNN reported no evidence that a test is imminent.
Cedric Leighton, a former U.S. government intelligence analyst and retired Air Force colonel, stated, “It’s very clear that all three countries, Russia, China, and the United States, have invested a great deal of time, effort, and money in not only modernizing their nuclear arsenals but also in preparing the types of activities that would be required for a test.”
North Korea Rebuilds Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site in Hamgyong Province
In contrast to China and Russia, experts generally believe that North Korea is likely to conduct a seventh nuclear test according to its timetable. North Korea previously announced the closure of its nuclear test site in Punggye-ri, Hamgyong Province, after demolishing the entrances to underground tunnels and some buildings there during its summit diplomacy with the U.S. and others over denuclearization and the easing or lifting of sanctions in 2018-19. However, there are now clear signs of preparations for the resumption of nuclear testing.
North Korea is believed to have completed the reconstruction of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in the first half of last year and is now ready to conduct a seventh nuclear test at any time.
Moon Sung Mook, head of the Unification Strategy Center at the Korea National Strategy Institute, said, “North Korea has been adjusting the schedule for its seventh nuclear test with China’s response in mind. If signs of preparation for a nuclear test are detected in China, it will be difficult for them to prevent North Korea’s nuclear test.”
Moon also analyzed that “If China and Russia do not cooperate with the international community amid the atmosphere of non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and pursue their path, North Korea is likely to conduct a nuclear test without any burden.”
This year, the threshold for North Korea’s nuclear tests has been lowered as there has been no proper joint response at the Security Council level to North Korea’s provocation, such as the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
Military experts predict that North Korea is likely to conduct a nuclear test in line with the U.S. presidential election in November next year. There are calls for the international community, including the U.S., to respond promptly and apply pressure to prevent North Korea from carrying out a nuclear test.
As countries’ movements accelerate, it has been revealed that our military conducted a solo exercise this year, assuming a nuclear attack from North Korea. Next year, South Korea and the U.S. plan to add nuclear operation exercises to the Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UFG) joint training.
According to the Ministry of Defense, through Defense Innovation 4.0, it was evaluated that “This year, we have strengthened our response capabilities by verifying the Korean-style three-axis system, supplementing operational plans, concretizing the concept of non-physical strike operations, and conducting TTX (tabletop exercise) assuming a nuclear attack from North Korea.”
This means that during the Ulchi Freedom Shield exercise in August, they practiced processes from detecting signs of a nuclear attack from North Korea to estimating damage and military retaliation through TTX. The Ministry of Defense plans to strengthen simulation (TTS) and TTX training, assuming a nuclear attack from North Korea next year.
In addition, the frequency and intensity of U.S. strategic asset deployment will be further expanded next year. The Ministry of Defense stated, “We conducted a capability evaluation of seven tasks for total war considering North Korea’s nuclear and WMD threats and prepared alternatives from a comprehensive perspective.” In addition, they plan to enhance surveillance and high-resolution detection capabilities over the entire Korean Peninsula by adding more satellite systems.
By. Hyun Ho Lee