By William Broad / New York Times News Service
ANALYST who examine satellite images of North Korea reported earlier this week that they had spotted some unexpected activity at the country’s nuclear test site: active volleyball games in three separate areas.
The surprising images were taken on Sunday as tensions between the United States and North Korea seemed to spike. The Korean Peninsula pulsed with news that the North was preparing for its sixth atomic detonation and that US warships had been ordered into the Sea of Japan as a deterrent, even though the ships turned out to have sailed in the opposite direction.
The volleyball games, played in the middle of that international crisis, were probably intended to send a message, analysts said, as the North Koreans are aware that the nuclear test site is under intense scrutiny. But what meaning the North wanted the games to convey is unclear.
“It suggests that the facility might be going into a standby mode,” Joseph Bermudez told reporters on a conference call organized by 38 North, a research institute at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. “It also suggests that these volleyball games are being conducted with the North Koreans knowing that we’ll be looking and reporting on it.”
Bermudez, a veteran analyst, emphasized the ambiguity of North Korean intentions. “They’re either sending us a message that they’ve put the facility on standby, or they’re trying to deceive us,” he said. “We really don’t know.”
At a military parade on Saturday, Pyongyang displayed many missiles, and on Sunday, it fired one that exploded seconds after lift-off, raising suspicions that an American program to sabotage the test flights had struck once again.
But at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, in the mountainous wilds of the North, teams of players that Sunday were engaged in a series of volleyball games, according to the image analysts. The game locations, Bermudez said, were the main administrative area, the guard barracks and the support area of the command center.
“What we’ve seen,” he told reporters, “is somewhat unusual.”
The resolution, or sharpness, of the satellite images was such that the players looked quite small, with no discernible features.
Bermudez spoke with reporters on Tuesday, and the group on Wednesday put out a report on the test-site developments. The authors, along with Bermudez, were Jack Liu and Frank Pabian, a scientist at the Los Alamos weapons lab in New Mexico, the birthplace of the atomic bomb.
The report said the volleyball teams appeared to be “the normal six players on each side.” An additional image in the report showed what the analysts identified as a “possible volleyball net” near the command area. But no players were visible.
Volleyball is a popular sport in North Korea, and satellite imagery often identifies games in progress. Previous images of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site have revealed personnel playing volleyball, but never before in three concurrent games.
Bermudez is an adviser to AllSource Analysis, a Colorado company that analyzes satellite images and other information for government and commercial clients.
The 38 North report said the rugged test site, despite the games, appeared able to conduct a sixth nuclear test at any time upon receiving the order.
North Korea recently staged its marathon and a horde of foreign fun-runners took to the streets of Pyongyang for the annual run that has become one of the capital’s most popular tourist events.
Officially called the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon, the race became an instant hit with tourists looking to run in possibly the world’s most exotic locale when it was opened up to amateur foreign runners in 2014.
Like everything else in North Korea, the race has a political backdrop.
First held in 1981, it is part of nationwide festivities leading up to the April 15 “Day of the Sun”, a national holiday marking the birthday of the late Kim Il Sung, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s grandfather and the country’s “eternal president”.
But for many a devoted marathoner, running in Pyongyang is more about bucket lists than politics.
This year more than 1,100 foreigners took part in the full road race, the half-marathon or the 10-kilometer run.
The course took them past such Pyongyang landmarks as Kim Il Sung Square and the recently completed Scientists’ Street high-rise district. All runners finished in Kim Il Sung Stadium before tens of thousands of cheering North Koreans. While the runners were off on the streets, the crowd in the stadium was kept entertained by a soccer match.
“I don’t know if you would say it was on my bucket list, but it was certainly something out of the ordinary,” said Philippe Sacher, a 38-year-old from Munich, Germany, who ran the half marathon. “I want to see for myself.”
Curious Pyongyang residents lined the streets to look at the colorfully clad foreign throngs.
Many yelled “Hurry! Hurry!” as the runners passed by.
“I think many of them only know what they have seen in their media and have a mistaken image,” said Pyongyang retiree Choe Yong Su. “But seeing is believing.”
The marathon also includes a race for elite runners recognized as a bronze label competition by the International Amateur Athletics Federation.
Just a handful of elite runners joined this year, mostly from Africa, and North Koreans won the men’s and women’s marathon golds.
To the delighted roar of the crowd, the first runner to enter Kim Il Sung Stadium was Pak Chol, who finished in two hours, 14 minutes and 56 seconds. Jo Un Ok, who took the bronze in last year’s Beijing Marathon, won the women’s race in 2:29:23.