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Is North Korea preparing for another nuclear test?

A United States-based monitoring group has detected a spike in activity at the nation's Punggye-ri nuclear test site.

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    A satellite image of the area around North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear test site shows graphics pointing to what monitoring group 38 North says are signs of increased activity, in a photo released by the 38 North group on October 7, 2016.
    Airbus Defense & Space and 38 North/Reuters
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A spike in activity at North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear test site has raised alarm bells among Western powers, amid speculation that the rogue nation's nuclear capabilities may be nearing the level of a credible threat.

The report of detected movement in all three tunnels at the site comes one month after a confirmed test solidified a growing sense of urgency among international leaders to find a way to stop its apparently alarming advances in nuclear capacity, since its first in 2006.

"One possible reason for this activity is to collect data on the Sept. 9 test although other purposes cannot be ruled out, such as sealing the portal or other preparations related to a new test," said Jack Lie of 38 North, a group dedicated to analysis of activities in North Korea that is run by Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, in a post on Thursday.

The Sept. 9 test prompted some analysts to assert that current international sanctions are not enough, and to call for China, the North's biggest ally, to become a bigger part of the solution.

“Sanctions by themselves aren’t going to work, this year has proved that,” Jim Walsh of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program told The Christian Science Monitor last month. “It has to be sanctions married to a political strategy.”

The North has repeatedly shrugged at international sanctions and declined international peace talks as it has pressed ahead with building more powerful nuclear weapons and the missiles needed to carry them.

In January this year, the Kim Jong Un-led regime conducted its fourth nuclear test, and last month’s was its fifth and biggest, a move Dr. Walsh says proves the need for China to move beyond pointed rhetoric.

“Ninety percent of North Korea’s trade is with China, so us simply wagging our finger at them won’t work,” Walsh said at the time. He added that it must shut down a growing number of conduits between private Chinese companies and North Korean entities that have set up inside China.

While Walsh said the United States needs to work more closely with China, other experts said that the UN Security Council’s latest round of tough sanctions needed more time to kick in. The sanctions targeted a number of measures including illicit financial transactions.

North 38 analysts said there was a chance that the most recent hive of activity detected at Punggye-ri could indicate it is planning an underground detonation on Oct. 10, which will mark the anniversary of the founding of its Workers’ Party.

Last month, it launched three missiles that travelled about 600 miles. In August, it tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile, a move international analysts said showed significant progress.

This report contains material from Reuters.

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