A U.S. monitoring group says that North Korea may be preparing to carry out another nuclear test in the near future.
The website 38 North, which focuses on North Korean issues and is run by Johns Hopkins University, said Friday that commercial satellite images taken May 5 over the country's nuclear test site show vehicle movement at a command center, where there is often no activity "except during preparations for a test."
South Korean officials have been on alert in the event that North Korea will conduct a fifth nuclear test to coincide with its high-profile political gathering now underway, the first of its kind in 36 years.
North Korea leader Kim Jong Un opened the seventh Workers' Party Congress Friday by hailing the country's January nuclear test and subsequent launch of a satellite into space.
Wearing a dark Western-style suit, Kim delivered his opening speech before more than 3,400 delegates.
Kim was expected to announce major policies and the reshuffling of senior party officials during the event. But Friday’s speech showed few signs of a dramatic change.
Instead, he laid out a series of accomplishments that he has made since he took power in late 2011.
Kim called the latest nuclear test and a subsequent long-range missile launch a demonstration of “dignity and power at the highest level.”
“In this year of the seventh party congress, our military and people accomplished the great success in the first hydrogen bomb test and the launch of an earth observation satellite,” he said.
Washington called on Pyongyang to “refrain from actions and rhetoric that further destabilize the region” in response to Kim’s comments.
Kim also praised the success of so called “70-day battle,” a short-term economic campaign for maximizing industrial and construction output with limited time and resources. Since late February, the North’s state media has enhanced coverage of the campaign.
Few signs of change
The young leader was flanked by Kim Yong Nam and Hwang Pyong So.
Kim Yong Nam is president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly and the country’s nominal head of state. Some South Korean news organizations speculated he could be ousted after the congress.
Hwang, who holds the rank of vice marshall in the North Korean army, heads its General Political Bureau, a position considered as the most powerful in the military after Kim Jong Un.
However, some analysts in Seoul cautioned it was too early to judge the outcome of the gathering, noting the agenda of the event still remains unclear. The gathering is expected to end on Monday.
The last party congress in North Korea was held when Kim's grandfather, Kim Il Sung, was president. Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, who rarely spoke in public, did not hold a party convention.
Preparation for the congress involved mobilizing the entire country in a 70-day campaign of intensified productivity and cleaning up the capital city.
Concerns about new test
Despite the warning, Pyongyang did not conduct the test before the gathering.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korea Studies in Seoul, said Beijing might have sent a warning to Pyongyang.
North Korea is not likely to conduct another nuclear test in the near future because of pressure from Beijing, Yang said.
But Seoul remains vigilant against a possible nuclear test. An official at South Korea’s presidential office told VOA Friday it is possible the North will conduct the test after the gathering, adding it is ready to conduct a test at any time.
The United States says it is in close consultation with its Asian allies to monitor the situation on the Korean Peninsula.
"We will continue to look at ways we can apply and increase pressure on them, at the same time as we ensure that the security of the peninsula is kept ironclad," U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Thursday.
U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper arrived in Seoul earlier this week.
Clapper met with South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo and discussed security issues, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency. The possibility of another nuclear test from North Korea was also discussed.
“Kim Jong Un will need to deliver a report that summarizes the Korean Workers’ Party’s accomplishments since the last congress in 1980 and present new policy directions. As for the new policy directions, I expect him to highlight the byungjin line,” James Person of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington told VOA Thursday.
But Person does not expect any new major policy directions in economic development because North Korea’s Workers’ Party Congress meetings are usually “scripted affairs” and typically do not offer major policy announcements.
Kim Hwan Yong and Baik Sungwon contributed to this report, which was produced in collaboration with VOA Korean Service.