Only a small number of foreign journalists were invited to visit North Korea to watch the demolition of Punggye-ri, the country's secretive nuclear testing facility. They were there to witness what Pyongyang had portrayed as a symbolic gesture of goodwill to the United States ahead of talks between Kim Jong Un and President Trump.
But if this was a media spectacle, it was very strange and distinctly North Korean one.
In one notable example, most of the journalists invited came from broadcast media. However, the remote site of Punggye-ri is located in a mountainous region in North Hamgyong Province, the northernmost part of the country; the journalists did not have good Internet access.
This meant that in the immediate aftermath of demolition on Thursday, these broadcast journalists were not able to offer any more than verbal descriptions of what happened.
“There was a huge explosion. You just could feel it. Dust came at you, the heat came at you. It was extremely loud,” is how Tom Cheshire, an Asia correspondent for British television channel Sky News described it. An account from the Associated Press, relayed by a television crew, reported the first explosion took place around 11 a.m. local time, followed by two others at around 2.20 p.m. and 4 p.m.
It was probably a long day for these journalists, who had already endured a lengthy, unpredictable and at times simply odd journey to get to the site. Around 20 reporters from a variety of countries had first arrived in the port city of Wonsan on Tuesday, traveling on a flight run by North Korea's airline Air Koryo from Beijing.
The journalists have been documenting the start of their surreal trip on social media — or at least, trying to do so when they can get Internet access. As with almost all reporting done by foreign journalists in North Korea, a number of strict limits were placed on the journalists by their minders.
Sky News's Cheshire later wrote that his satellite phone had been confiscated at the airport. “So was our radiation dosimeter — a device used to measure how much nuclear radiation we absorb at the test site,” he added. Once the journalists arrived at the newly constructed Wonsan airport, they traveled to a hotel that had also been constructed recently — North Korea has hopes that the city, once better known for missile tests, may one day become a tourism hub.
At the hotel, the journalists appeared to be the only guests. They said they were served local delicacies like shark fin soup. Igor Zhdanov, a reporter with the Russian network RT, said that the journalists were “greeted like royalty here.”
The journalists were told that their onward travel would involve a 12-hour train ride, followed by a four-hour bus journey, and then a hike to get to the site, which is more than 300 miles from Wonsan. While they expected the demolition to happen on Thursday, the timing was not made clear.
There was an additional delay in Wonsan, as the reporters waited for a party of South Korean reporters who were given last-minute permission to join the trip. These eight journalists were initially refused access by the North Korean government, but after subsequent negotiations they arrived in Wonsan on Wednesday, flying directly on board a government flight.
The foreign reporters finally began their journey out of Wonsan on Wednesday evening. This leg of the journey was also tightly controlled — the Associated Press reported that on the train that took them out of the city, the journalists were told not to open the blinds on the window during the journey. They were also expected to pay their own way. It was $75 per person for the round-trip train tickets and $20 for each meal.
Michael Greenfield, a producer with Sky News, noted that because of the lack of Internet access at the site, most journalists wouldn't be able to file their footage or use social media again until local time Friday, when they returned to their hotel in Wonsan.
It may well be spectacular footage. According to the Associated Press, the journalists were at the site for around nine hours in total, before heading back toward Wonsan. CNN reports that they were allowed to watch the explosions from observation decks that were around 500 meters away (roughly 1,600 feet) and that they were permitted to view the explosives rigged inside tunnels at the site before the explosion.
RT's Zhdanov described the destruction of the tunnels as impressive, saying it was “a real way of showing how they are ready to make real concessions.” However, he noted that while the buildings at the site were destroyed, it was not clear what happened to the equipment in them. “We were told that they got rid of the equipment earlier. But of course we have no way of verifying that,” he said.
There has been debate among disarmament experts about whether the destruction of Punggye-ri would be a real concession on North Korea's nuclear testing or whether it is simply a symbolic gesture. By their own admission, the journalists who attended the demolition on Thursday did not have enough information to judge: CNN reported that “there were no international experts in the invited group and no one was present who was able to assess the explosions in order to tell if they were deep enough to destroy the tunnels.”
Jean Lee, a former Associated Press bureau chief in Pyongyang who is now director of the Korea Center at the Wilson Center, suggested on Twitter that this was deliberate. “They want the media to capture [and] eventually disseminate the drama of the explosion,” Lee wrote.
But with serious tensions ahead of the Trump-Kim summit scheduled for June 12 in Singapore, perhaps a television-friendly spectacle — even an unusual, North Korean-style one — may lighten the mood.