Death toll in N. Korea blast lowered

More than 100 died

Pyongyang acknowledges accident, asks for help

April 24, 2004|By Mark Magnier and Barbara Demick | Mark Magnier and Barbara Demick,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEIJING - This week's explosion of rail cars in North Korea killed more than 100 people and injured 1,249, aid groups said yesterday, figures sharply lower than initial reports.

The new numbers came as the North Korean government finally acknowledged the accident and formally requested aid from the international community.

Aid groups said the numbers would likely rise as more bodies were pulled from the rubble, although initial South Korean media reports of 3,000 casualties appear to be an exaggeration, though hundreds of houses were believed to have been damaged.

North Korea said today that human "carelessness" contributed to the train blast, the Associated Press reported.

In its first statement on Thursday's disaster, North Korea's official news agency said the blast was touched off by "electrical contact caused by carelessness during the shunting of wagons loaded with ammonium nitrate fertilizer."

The news agency for North Korea's secretive government said that an investigation into the explosion at the railway station "so far shows that the damage is very serious," the AP said.

The statement also expressed appreciation for offers of international humanitarian assistance. Those offers came in the hours after the North issued a rare appeal for foreign help, inviting aid workers to come see the disaster site.

"In Pyongyang, we already hold out our hands to the world community," North Korea's Deputy United Nations Ambassador Kim Chang Guk told Associated Press Television News. He said Pyongyang was seeking "generous help from the world community."

"I don't know what really happened, but I think it is very serious because our government held out [its] hand to the world community for help," he said in New York. "It means it is a great incident."

He said Ambassador Pak Gil Yon officially requested U.N. help yesterday. A U.N. mission, accompanied by several aid agencies, was to arrive at the disaster site today to assess humanitarian needs and offer immediate support, U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said.

China's U.N. ambassador, Wang Guangya, urged the international community to respond to the rare call for help from North Korea.

"This is unusual for [North Korea]. So I think that the international community should be forthcoming, be positive in responding to their request," he said.

But while the Communist North appealed for help and disclosed some details of the blast to the outside world, its state-controlled domestic media remained silent on the disaster.

It took a day for the North Korean government to admit it had a problem, a pattern seen in past events that have threatened to cast the country in a bad light.

Analysts said the time was likely spent considering domestic and foreign implications in a country where political control is ironclad and paramount.

The international assessment team, including representatives from U.N. agencies and other relief organizations, was due to leave the capital, Pyongyang, at 9 a.m. for the approximately four-hour drive. The regime restricts the movements of foreigners, and some aid groups said the fact that the team is being summoned to visit the site - something that would not have happened five years ago - reflected a gradual opening in the regime's thinking.

A doctor, nurse, two water and sanitation experts and the acting head of the delegation make up the Red Cross portion of the team, according to a regional Red Cross official, adding that the convoy would likely include at least eight vehicles filled with experts carrying painkillers, bandages, other medical supplies and hospital kits. Even before their arrival, some aid was reportedly getting through from U.N. warehouses in the area.

Aid organizations said North Korea has indicated its strong preference that rescue and relief efforts be handled internally. In the past, North Korea has tended to handle disasters this way in order to save face.

Several events in North Korea over recent years, including rail collisions, explosions and a chemical factory conflagration, were never officially disclosed to the outside world.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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