Mass casualties feared in N. Korea crash

Explosion follows wreck of two trains near China

regime withholds details

April 23, 2004|By Michael A. Lev | Michael A. Lev,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BEIJING - A huge explosion rocked a North Korean railroad station near the Chinese border yesterday, apparently set off by a collision between two fuel trains, South Korean media said.

There were reports of as many as 3,000 people killed or injured, but the full scope of the accident was impossible to confirm because the reclusive North Korean government said nothing about the incident.

North Korea declared an emergency and cut international telephone lines in an apparent effort to contain news of the incident, South Korea's Yonhap news agency said.

The collision took place about 1 p.m. in Ryongchon, a town 12 miles from China. One train was reportedly carrying oil, and the second contained liquefied petroleum gas. The area around the station appeared "as if it had been bombarded," Yonhap quoted witnesses as saying. "Debris from the explosion soared high into the sky."

Yonhap said it had preliminary confirmation of an incident in North Korea from sources in the South Korean government. An unnamed Defense Ministry official said: "We've obtained the information that there was a large explosion near Ryongchon Station. We have yet to find out the cause of the incident."

South Korea's YTN television, citing an unnamed South Korean government source, said the number of casualties could reach 3,000.

Cho Sung Dae, a Yonhap correspondent in Beijing, said residents across the border in Dandong, China, who talked with their relatives in Ryongchon, described a huge explosion and a large number of casualties but could not give figures, the Associated Press reported.

The AP said the correspondent reported that the North Korean authorities appeared to shut down the border with China after the incident.

Today, with North Korea's threadbare medical system unable to cope with the large numbers of casualties, many of the injured were treated by hospitals in Dandong, about 10 miles north of the explosion site, and Reuters reported that North Korea had asked China for rescue assistance.

In the event reports of the explosion and casualties were confirmed, Goh Kun, the acting president of South Korea, ordered officials today to prepare aid for North Korea, Reuters reported his office as saying.

U.S. officials who have seen satellite photos of the area of the explosion said yesterday that there was clearly a large fire but that they could not determine from the reconnaissance photographs whether there were trains involved or what the source might be.

They also said that the fire appeared not to be anywhere near the country's nuclear facilities.

A senior U.S. official said yesterday that the explanation in South Korean media reports that the explosion involved a collision of train cars with flammable cargo was plausible but that the United States had no further information to back it up. "What we know is that there was a very large explosion in a rail yard," the official said.

A diplomat who has lived in Pyongyang said North Korea's ability to respond to a significant emergency would be extremely limited. The country faces severe shortages of almost all medical supplies, and its hospitals have little equipment. There are few if any ambulances, and even victims of routine car accidents must fend for themselves.

"You don't have anything in the health care system except for bare hands to take care of this kind of catastrophe," the diplomat said.

Train wrecks with large numbers of fatalities are rare in North Korea, largely because trains creak slowly along rails that were first laid during the Japanese occupation, from 1910 to 1945.

As for the cause of the accident, the diplomat said the rail system was troubled by old equipment and frequent power outages that sometimes caused delays of several days on longer journeys.

"I've seen oil tankers, and they are leaking oil and covered with soot," the diplomat said, speculating on the cause of yesterday's explosion. "You could have a spark from a brake and set the whole thing off."

The explosion on Thursday took place on North Korea's busiest rail line, its route from China to Pyongyang, the nation's capital.

A lifeline for the impoverished nation, this route brings in food and fuel from China, North Korea's largest trading partner and a major source of aid.

The fuel trains may have been payment to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il for traveling to Beijing last week to meet with Chinese officials. In recent years, South Korea and China have routinely made large gifts to North Korea - in fuel, fertilizer, food or cash - to ensure that bilateral meetings take place.

"The real question may be how bad the damage is and how long will it block key imports to Pyongyang, since rail is the critical lifeline for guaranteeing access to key imports" from China to the Pyongyang capital area, Scott Snyder, the Korea representative for the Asia Foundation, said this morning.

A train carrying Kim had passed through the area of the explosion nine hours earlier on his return from a visit to Beijing.

That trip - like previous visits by Kim to China - had not been announced in advance by North Korea. Word leaked out almost immediately after his arrival in Beijing through the foreign news media and was confirmed later by China.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The New York Times contributed to this article.

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