SOUTH KOREA, MAY 23,
Eight journalists from South Korea departed for rival North Korea on Wednesday after the North allowed them to join the small group of foreign media in the country to witness the dismantling of its nuclear test site this week, Seoul officials said.
North Korea had earlier refused to grant entry visas to the South Korean journalists, raising worries about the prospect for recently improving ties. Their exclusion followed Pyongyang cutting off high-level contact with Seoul to protest joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises that it calls an invasion rehearsal.
The dismantling of the North’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site, where all of its six nuclear bomb test explosions occurred, is expected to happen on May 24 or 25 depending on weather.
On Wednesday morning, North Korea accepted the list of the South Korean journalists to attend via a cross-border communication channel. The journalists from the MBC television network and News1 wire service took a special government flight later on Wednesday to go to the North’s northeastern coastal city of Wonsan, according to Seoul’s Foreign Ministry.
The other journalists from the United States, the U.K, China and Russia, including an Associated Press Television crew, had arrived in Wonsan on Tuesday. The group is to travel by train to the Punggye-ri site at Mount Mantap, also in the northeast, to observe the closing.
When North Korea announced it would dismantle the Punggy-ri site, it said it would invite media from five countries including South Korea to watch, but it didn’t respond to South Korea’s notifications of which journalists would attend until Wednesday morning.
The South Korean journalists went to Beijing to travel with the full group but were left behind and eventually returned to Seoul as the North refused to grant them visas.
It was unclear why the North changed course and decided to let South Korean journalists in the country. The development came hours after President Donald Trump met South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Washington seeking to keep the highly anticipated summit between Mr. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on track.
The summit could offer a historic chance for peace on the Korean Peninsula. But there has been increasing pessimism about the meeting after North Korea scrapped the inter-Korean talks and threatened to do the same for the Kim-Trump summit in protest of the South Korea-U.S. military drills and what it calls Washington’s push for “one-sided” disarmament. Mr. Trump said during his meetings with Moon the summit may not happen as scheduled.
The North’s decision to close the Punggye-ri nuclear test site has generally been seen as a welcome gesture by Mr. Kim to set a positive tone ahead of his summit with Mr. Trump.
But it is mainly just a gesture.
If North Korea decides to conduct more nuclear tests, it could build a new site or dismantle the existing tunnels at Mount Mantap in a reversible manner. Details of what will actually happen during the closure are sparse, but observers have expressed concern that Pyongyang is showing the closure of the site to journalists but not to international nuclear inspectors.