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NKorean Nuclear Test Site Tunnel Collapses, 200 Feared Dead: Report

This satellite image released and notated by Airbus Defense & Space and 38 North on April 12, 2017, shows the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in North Korea. Airbus Defense & Space/38 North/Pleiades CNES/Spot Image via AP.
This satellite image released and notated by Airbus Defense & Space and 38 North on April 12, 2017, shows the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in North Korea. Airbus Defense & Space/38 North/Pleiades CNES/Spot Image via AP.

More than 200 people were believed to have died in North Korea when an underground tunnel at the country's main nuclear test site collapsed last month after its sixth and most powerful atomic test, a report said Tuesday.

The tunnel at the Punggye-ri test site was undergoing construction sometime around Sept. 10, days after the North set off the Sept. 3 nuclear explosion, when some 100 workers were involved in an initial collapse, Japan's TV Asahi reported, quoting unnamed sources in the isolated country. After rescuers were sent in, a separate collapse left at least 100 more feared dead.

The Japan Times could not confirm the veracity of the report, but North Korea rarely acknowledges major accidents, and any incident involving the country's ever-improving nuclear program would likely be off-limits for state-run media.

The North's sixth test -- which Tokyo estimated had an explosive yield of 160 kilotons, or more than 10 times the size of the Hiroshima bomb -- was believed to have triggered the collapse.

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On Monday, South Korea's weather agency, the Korea Meteorological Administration, told a parliamentary hearing that another nuclear blast could trigger a collapse at the mountainous test site spurring a dangerous leak of radioactive materials.

Experts have warned that the nuclear-armed country's six atomic tests at the site have destabilized the area, and that it may not be usable for future tests. Others, however, including the North Korea-watching 38 North website, have said that its abandonment for nuclear testing should not be expected.

"Even in the face of what has been dubbed 'Tired Mountain Syndrome,' abandonment of the site for nuclear testing should not be expected," it said in an Oct. 17 analysis, referring to a condition in which underground nuclear testing fractures and weakens rock, increasing permeability and the risk of radioactive contamination into the environment.

"Historical precedent, combined with the presence of two other, as yet unused tunnel complexes within the test site, leads us to conclude that there is no valid reason to assume that the Punggye-ri test site is unable to contain additional underground nuclear tests," the report went on.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has called his country's nuclear weapons program a "treasured sword" meant to protect it from aggression. He has vowed never to give it up, despite calls for the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have, meanwhile, ratcheted up a program of "maximum pressure" meant to bring the recalcitrant leader to the negotiating table on their terms.

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This article is written by Jesse Johnson from The Japan Times and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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North Korea nuclear weapons