North Korea reverts to angry tone as foreign media gathers for shutdown of nuclear test site
Pyongyang lashes out at the South over military drills with the US, sparking concerns about short-lived ‘peace’ between long-time rivals and whether Trump-Kim summit will go ahead
After weeks of flowery coverage of historic talks with South Korea and the United States, North Korea’s media returned to its trademark angry tone on Tuesday, just as foreign journalists arrived in the country to cover the demolition of its nuclear test site.
In a sign of how fragile cross-border ties are at a crucial time, Pyongyang newspapers savaged Seoul for carrying out war games with the US, while journalists from the South were refused visas and not allowed on the charter flight for foreign media from Beijing to Wonsan.
North Korea is allowing the small international group access to the site to publicise its promise to halt underground tests and launches of long-range missiles.
Leader Kim Jong-un promised to demolish the site during his landmark talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in last month, saying it would be done before the summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump on June 12 in Singapore.
But Pyongyang has cut off high-level contact with Seoul over the exercises with the US military.
“Dialogue and sabre-rattling can never go together,” said a commentary in Minju Joson, one of the North’s four main daily newspapers.
Another article lashed out at South Korean authorities for allowing defectors to send anti-North Korea leaflets across the border: “If the North-South relations face a grave difficulty again owing to the provocation of human scum, the blame for it will be entirely on the South Korean authorities,” the report said. “They must know what price they will be made to pay.”
The North’s abrupt sharpening of its words has raised concerns the Trump summit may prove to be a tricky one – or that it could even be in jeopardy.
Moon was to meet Trump in Washington later on Tuesday.
North Korea allowing foreign media to conduct on-the-spot coverage of the facility’s shutdown is seen as a sign of goodwill from Kim, who has recently committed to denuclearisation – but scepticism lingers that it may be only a “political show”.
Pyongyang has said it would hold a ceremony to mark the closure between Wednesday and Friday, depending on the weather, and that journalists from China, Russia, the US, Britain and initially South Korea would be allowed to watch.
Journalists from Associated Press, CNN, CBS, Russia Today and Chinese state media outlets were among those seen checking in at Beijing Capital International Airport to catch the Air Koryo flight. They were expected to go to a press centre set up in Wonsan, a city on the country’s east coast.
“We hope that North Korea is going to be transparent like they said,” Will Ripley, a CNN correspondent based in Hong Kong, told reporters before leaving from Beijing.
Kim’s pledged to shut down the test site is said to ensure transparency, according to Moon’s office. But North Korea has not invited any experts, such as those from the International Atomic Energy Agency, raising concern that the actual condition of the nuclear test site will not be known.
The Punggye-ri site is where North Korea carried out all six of its nuclear weapon tests, including the most powerful one last September. All the tunnels will be blown up and the surrounding area will be completely closed, according to North Korean media.
Sceptics warn that Pyongyang has yet to make a public commitment to give up its arsenal and has a history of going back on its word.
In 2008 the government blew up a cooling tower at its atomic reactor at Yongbyon, the facility that produced the plutonium that allowed North Korea to carry out its first successful nuclear test.
That ceremony was also held with much fanfare, complete with international invited journalists, and was heralded as a mark of Pyongyang’s commitment to denuclearisation talks.
The following day then President George W. Bush lifted some sanctions. But when talks collapsed the Yongbyon cooling tower was quickly rebuilt and the reactor restarted.
In the intervening years, with diplomacy going nowhere, North Korea went on to test five more nuclear devices and develop missiles it said were capable of reaching the United States.
Associated Press, Kyodo, Reuters, Agence France-Presse