Behind Punggye-ri explosion

By Ock Hyun-ju

Korean pool reporters recount witnessing large explosion at NK nuclear test site

  • Published : May 28, 2018 - 16:28
  • Updated : May 28, 2018 - 18:34

After North Korea blew up tunnels, observation buildings and living quarters at its nuclear test site Punggye-ri in front of international journalists last week, more details of the trip were revealed by South Korean pool reporters Monday. 

Eight pool reporters from South Korea were allowed into the North at the last minute, joining some 20 reporters from the US, China, Russia and the UK to witness the destruction of the Punggye-ri site in the country’s mountainous northeast.

(Joint Press Corps)

Traveling in dark

When South Korean reporters arrived at the Wonsan Airport from Seoul Air Base on a government-owned plane, security personnel took away radiation measuring equipment. One reporter, who had a pile of printed news articles naming Kim Jong-un without including his official title, was grilled about his “ideological problem” and had the printouts confiscated. 

On their 12-hour trip to Punggye-ri site from port city of Wonsan, where a press center was located, the reporters were told not to open the blinds that covered the windows of the train. The train carrying the reporters only traveled at night and the ride was “unimaginably” bumpy, they said.  

After getting off the train in Jaedokri, in Kilju Country in northern Hamgyong, they transferred to a bus for a 20-kilometer ride to the test site along a stream, passing by some small houses that they said seemed to be uninhabited. They did not pass a single person, apart from soldiers at seven military guard points, the reporters said.

At the test site, the reporters said they were allowed to relatively freely report on the event during their nine-hour stay there.

Details of explosion 

(Joint Press Corps)

The reporters witnessed explosions at nuclear tunnels Nos. 2, 3, and 4 and a number of buildings around them on Friday. The No. 1 tunnel had been already shut down after the first nuclear test, according to a North Korean official. 

Located at about 1,400 meters above sea level on the 2,205-meter Mantap mountain, the No. 2 tunnel, which was used for five nuclear tests, was blown up after about three detonations, the reporters said. 

North Korean officials did not answer questions about the size of the tunnels or how much of the tunnels was destroyed. From what they have seen, they could not find any signs of artificial earthquakes.

(Joint Press Corps)

Information about the shutdown of the nuclear site is too limited to verify whether North Korea dismantled the Punggye-ri site to the point it can never be restored, experts say. 

It is possible that the tunnels could be restored. With the information provided, it is difficult to tell,” Lee Chun-geun, senior research fellow at the Science and Technology Policy Institute, said. 

(Joint Press Corps)

Only about 30 meters of each tunnel was visible to the journalists looking in at the entrances, and the officials did not confirm whether the explosives were placed further inside the tunnels. 

The closing of the Punggye-ri site marks North Korea’s first step to deliver on its promise to denuclearize, though the absence of nuclear experts at the scene stirred skepticism that the event was nothing more than a political show.

North Korea on Monday highlighted the importance of what it called “proactive, bald” measure to dismantle the nuclear site and said it is following its “own timetable” to join the international community in constructing a nuclear-free world in an article carried by North Korea’s state-run Rodong Sinmun.

(Joint Press Corps)

NK officials anxious

News of the canceled summit, initially scheduled for June 12 in Singapore, between North Korea and the US reached the journalists on the train as they were heading back from the Punggye-ri site to Wonsan. The sense of shock was palpable, they said. 

Before the North Koreans blew up the tunnel No. 2, one of some five North Korean officials minding South Koreans signaled high expectation about US President Donald Trump and the summit during their lunch together, the reporters said. 

“We had expectation about Trump, but he is such an unpredictable person,” a North Korean official was quoted as saying by the pool reporters.

In reaction to Trump’s cancellation of the planned meeting with Kim, the North Korean officials expressed worries over “whether hardliners like John Bolton (Trump’s national security adviser) and Mike Pence (US vice president) had gained momentum,” according to the reporters. 

“We got an impression that North Korea wanted to hold a summit with the US and it had high expectations for South Korea to play a mediating role,” one of the reporters said.

North Korean officials and South Korean reporters at a press center in Wonsan, Saturday. (Joint Press Corps)

When the reporters returned to Wonsan, North Korean officials gathered around reporters’ desk and laptops to find out details of the canceled summit, they said.  

South Korean reporters returned to Seoul via Beijing after midnight on Sunday. They received a medical check-up Monday to see whether they were exposed to any radiation, with the result expected in the coming days.
By Ock Hyun-ju (