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Originally published April 9, 2012 at 8:17 PM | Page modified April 10, 2012 at 6:24 AM

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Nuclear report adds tension to North Korea missile launch

Recent satellite images show North Korea is digging a new underground tunnel in what appears to be preparation for a third nuclear test.

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SEOUL, South Korea — Recent satellite images show North Korea is digging a new underground tunnel in what appears to be preparation for a third nuclear test, according to South Korean intelligence officials. The report comes as North Korea prepares to launch a long-range rocket that the United States and others say is a cover for testing missile technology that could be used to fire on the United States.

The excavation at North Korea's northeast Punggye-ri site, where nuclear tests were conducted in 2006 and 2009, is in its final stages, according to a report by intelligence officials that was shared Monday with The Associated Press.

The Obama administration said Monday it would consider both a rocket launch and an underground nuclear test as highly provocative.

Observers fear a repeat of 2009, when international criticism of the North's last long-range rocket launch prompted North Korea to walk away from nuclear-disarmament negotiations and, weeks later, conduct its second nuclear test. A year later, 50 South Korean were killed in attacks blamed on the North, which is still technically at war with South Korea, despite an armistice signed in 1953.

U.S. commercial-satellite photos taken April 1 show dirt believed to have been brought from other areas piled at the tunnel entrance, the report said, something experts say is needed to fill up tunnels before a nuclear test. The dirt indicates a "high possibility" North Korea will stage a nuclear test, the report said, as plugging tunnels was the final step taken during its two previous underground nuclear tests.

Foreign news agencies were allowed a firsthand look Sunday at preparations under way at the coastal Sohae Satellite Station in northwestern North Korea. Reporters were taken by train past desolate fields and sleepy farming hamlets to North Korea's new launchpad in Tongchang-ri in North Phyongan province, about 35 miles south of the border town of Sinuiju along North Korea's west coast.

North Korea announced plans last month to launch an observation satellite using a three-stage rocket during mid-April celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the birth of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung.

North Korea says the satellite will observe crops and natural resources and denies suspicions that the launch is intended to test long-range missile technology.

North Korea has tested two atomic devices but is not believed to have mastered the technology needed to mount a warhead on a long-range missile.

China, South Korea and Japan expressed concern over North Korea's plan to put a satellite into orbit with a long-range rocket between April 12 and 16.

Experts say the Unha-3 rocket slated for liftoff between April 12 and 16 could also test long-range missile technology that might be used to strike the United States and other targets. The launch, which will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of state founder Kim Il Sung, threatens to overshadow South Korean elections Tuesday.

"The timing is impeccable," said Park Young Ho, senior research fellow and director at Korea Institute for National Unification. "Kim Jong Un is taking advantage of the domestic North Korean celebrations of Kim Il Sung to aggressively influence South Korean elections."

Polls show South Korean President Lee Myung Bak's party may lose control of parliament to an opposition coalition that has pledged to improve ties with its northern neighbor.

North Korea's ruling Workers' Party also meets Tuesday and may appoint Kim Jong Un the new party chief in one of the final steps marking his succession after the Dec. 17 death of his father, Kim Jong Il.

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