By Heekyong Yang
SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea has declined to accept a list of South Korean journalists hoping to observe the closure of its nuclear test site, South Korea said on Friday, raising new questions about the North’s commitment to reducing tension.
North Korea had invited a limited number of journalists from South Korea and other countries to witness what it said will be the closing of its only nuclear weapons test site at Punggye-ri next week.
The North Korean offer to scrap the test site has been seen as major concession in months of easing tension between it, on the one hand, and South Korea and the United States on the other.
But the remarkable progress appears to have been checked in recent days with North Korea raising doubts about an unprecedented June 12 summit in Singapore between leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump, and calling off talks with the South.
The South Korean Unification Ministry, which handles dealings with the North, said on Friday North Korea had “declined to accept” the list of journalists submitted by the South for the test site dismantling.
The ministry did not elaborate but the North Korean decision is likely to raise doubts about its plan for the test site.
Trump on Thursday sought to placate North Korea after it threatened to call off the June summit, saying Kim’s security would be guaranteed in any deal and his country would not suffer the fate of Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, unless that could not be reached.
North Korea had said on Wednesday it might not attend the Singapore summit if the United States continued to demand it unilaterally abandon its nuclear arsenal, which it has developed in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions to counter perceived U.S. hostility.
On Thursday, North Korea’s chief negotiator called South Korea “ignorant and incompetent” and denounced U.S.-South Korean air combat drills and threatened to halt all talks with the South.
Trump, in rambling remarks in the White House’s Oval Office, said as far as he knew the summit was still on track, but that the North Korean leader was possibly being influenced by Beijing.
But he also stressed that North Korea would have to abandon its nuclear weapons and warned that if no deal was reached, North Korea could be “decimated” like Libya or Iraq.
China, responding to U.S. President Donald Trump suggestion that Beijing may be influencing North Korea’s new hardline stance, said on Friday it stands for stability and peace on the Korean peninsula and for settlement of confrontation over its development of weapons through talks.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang, asked about Trump’s comments, said China’s position had not changed and he reiterated that it supported the goal of denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula.
“We are consistently supporting all relevant parties in resolving the peninsula issue through political consultations and peaceful means,” Lu told a regular briefing.
Kim has made two visits to China recently for talks with President Xi Jinping, including a secretive train trip to Beijing in late March, his first known visit outside North Korea since coming to power.
He flew to the port city of Dalian this month.
Both times, Kim’s encounters with Xi were cast by Chinese state media as friendly. They included beachside strolls and Xi saying that previous generations of North Korean and Chinese leaders had visited each other as often as relatives.
The warmth between the two leaders marks a sharp reversal in what had been months of frosty ties, as China ratcheted up sanction pressure on North Korea in response to its relentless missiles and nuclear tests last year.
China is North Korea’s largest trading partner and considers it an important security buffer against the U.S. military presence in region.
What had seemed until this week to be rapidly warming ties between North Korea, on the one hand, and South Korea and the United States on the other, had fueled fears in Beijing that it might be left out of a new deal on the peninsula, according to analysts.
(Additonal reporting by Micheal Martina, in BEIJING; Writing by Christian Shepherd; Editing by Josh Smith, Robert Birsel)