Features

What a relief: Portraits of dictator spared

International

Issue: "Iraq: What went wrong?," May 15, 2004

From official North Korean accounts, the most noteworthy news to emerge from the country's April 22 train blast was that some local residents died heroes. The official state-run press praised them for dashing into burning and collapsing buildings to save portraits of President Kim Jong Il and his father, Kim Il Sung.

"Many people of the county evacuated portraits before searching after their family members or saving their household goods," reported Korean Central News Agency.

Humanitarian news reports contained less propaganda and more grim figures about the blast, ignited when two fuel-laden trains collided. By the end of April, the death toll had topped 160, with 3,100 injured and 8,100 homes destroyed. But foreign governments still don't know much else about the disaster in the northern city of Ryongchon, even as Kim Jong Il's regime requested hundreds of millions in aid.

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The World Health Organization reported after an April 27 visit that most of the injured had cuts from glass, bruises, and burns on their faces and heads, with 15 percent of the patients in critical condition. Eye medications, creams, and petroleum-jelly compresses for burns remain in short supply, in a country where basic medical equipment such as intravenous drips is already scarce. And to compound the crisis, the blast shattered all the windows of the local county hospital, initially putting it out of operation.

Despite the urgency, the North Korean government stayed in top secretive form. Officials refused to allow South Korean trucks to cross the two countries' demilitarized zone. That meant the South's first aid shipment had to come by sea, arriving a week after the disaster and docking near Pyongyang, far south of the northern border town.

The first South Korean cargo flight allowed in of blankets, first-aid kits, and other relief items also came a week later. The North refused the help of South Korean doctors. The regime also barred journalists from on-site reporting.

North Korea's reaction to the blast offered a fresh case-in-point to defectors speaking in Washington April 28. "There have been lots of train accidents in North Korea, and North Korea did not release any information to the outside world," said An Hyuk, a defector to South Korea and prison camp survivor. "In North Korea, whenever Kim Jong Il visits any local area, all the trains in the whole country stop, and only Kim Jong Il's train would go all the way to its destination.

"So right after Kim Jong Il arrives at some destination then all the other trains start moving again." Because of the rush, he said, "lots of trains hit each other."

Mr. An also sifted through some of the rumors that cropped up after the blast: He didn't believe the government had staged the train wreck, but thought it was possible that a "rebel group" had tried to assassinate Mr. Kim. His train passed through the Ryongchon station only hours before the explosion, ferrying Mr. Kim from a trip to Beijing. Mr. An is certain of one thing-the regime is as calculating as always, and desperate for money. The government estimated property damage from the blast at $356 million.

"Whether it's accidental or intentional, whatever happens in North Korea the regime would try to do everything to secure money from the outside."

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