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For Kim and North Korea, a sign of mortality
By David Scofield

SEOUL - Disaster of enormous but still unknown proportions struck North Korea nine hours after Kim Jong-il's heavily guarded train re-entered the Hermit Kingdom and passed through Ryongchon station, 20 kilometers south of the Chinese border. The Dear Leader had returned from "secret" talks with China on defusing the Pyongyang nuclear crisis, gradually giving up his weapons of mass destruction in exchange for massive economic and food aid, clean energy and a better life for his people. The outcome of the talks was not known.

Then, it happened: Two trains (some say a train and a truck) laden with fuel, oil and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) collided and exploded. First reports said as many as 3,000 people were killed or injured in the densely populated town. The Red Cross later said at least 54 were killed and more than 1,200 injured - the full scope of the disaster was yet to emerge. As of Friday afternoon, North Korean officials had not acknowledged the tragedy, and international phone services had been cut, making it difficult to gather information. 

Speculation abounds, but none has been verified. Some suggest the explosions were intended to kill Kim but were badly timed - South Korean experts dismiss that speculation. Some say one of the trains involved in the collision contained LPG as a gift from the Chinese after Kim's Beijing visit. Still others say there was a routing problem as trains were held up at the station to allow Kim's train to pass, causing problems that led later to a collision.

Kim's heavily fortified and armored train was returning from his heavily publicized "secret" meetings in Beijing at the invitation of Chinese President Hu Jintao; Kim arrived shortly after US Vice President Dick Cheney left China, and it was not known whether he had been informed that Kim was on the way.

From April 10-16, Cheney traveled through China, South Korea and Japan, discussing issues of common concern, including the "war on terror", Seoul's troop dispatch to Iraq, and, of course, North Korea's nuclear-weapons program. During his stay in China, the smiles at photo sessions and declarations of solid, pragmatic relations may have masked tougher talk behind closed doors.

US seeking more Chinese pressure on N Korea
Cheney made it clear that the United States is pursuing all options in an effort to end the North Korean nuclear impasse, and China - as the linchpin in any program to rid the region of the nuclear threat - needs to be far more proactive in ending the Pyongyang problem than it has so far demonstrated, according to reports.

Of course, China's role in North Korea's stability and the regime's survival has been discussed extensively. China supplies Pyongyang with an estimated million tons of oil a year, providing some energy needed for the devastated economy to limp along and for the military, the key to the regime's survival, to function. China has restricted energy exports to North Korea in the past. Last spring, in response to North Korean missile tests in the Sea of Japan (known in Korea as the East Sea), China reportedly closed its last remaining pipeline into North Korea. China said the pipeline was closed for maintenance, and it was reopened three days later.

The message was clear: Energy supplies can and will be used to force North Korea's compliance and accepted standards of international behavior. North Korea agreed soon afterward to six-party summit talks held in Beijing the following August. The talks involved both Koreas, the US, China, Japan and Russia; a second round in late February was inconclusive, but further talks are expected before July.

Shortly after Cheney left China on April 16, the Chinese invited Kim Jong-il to visit Beijing post haste for high-level talks with Hu Jintao. The "secret" meeting was one of the most heavily monitored events ever involving the Northern Kim. South Korea's national broadcaster KBS broke the story of Kim's train passing into China late Sunday. Reportedly witnesses on the ground said the train passed into China's Jilin province, the home of tens of thousands of North Korean refugees.

After he arrived in Beijing, there were reports, mostly South Korean, of his accommodations at the Diaoyutai State Guest House, pictures of the new Audi limousines that conveyed him around, and even an out-of-focus shot of the Dear Leader himself leaving a famous Peking-duck restaurant, reportedly his favorite. Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency reported that Kim had indeed visited China, shortly after his train had returned to North Korea, and shortly before the cataclysmic explosion.

The cause, the causalities probably never known
It is hard to be sure of anything in North Korea, given the extreme secrecy and absolute control held by government authorities, so the cause of the rail explosion and total number of victims will probably never be clear, though reports will leak out. But what is clear is the explosion, whether intended or not, will serve as a shot across the bow for Kim Jong-il. Within a regime as inherently paranoid as his, this sort of "accident" will no doubt put the man on alert. Indeed, at the time of writing, North Korea has disconnected all international phone services, in essence sealing the Hermit Kingdom off even further.

Of course, in North Korea where industrial maintenance standards have fallen to below acceptable, even substandard levels, industrial accidents are commonplace as workers attempt to function, producing goods in dilapidated factories using dangerous malfunctioning equipment in the "worker's paradise" without even the most basic security equipment. That two trains, fully loaded with oil and gas, could collide and explode in a busy train station is most certainly possible, though for a country with such wrenching energy shortages, and where the nature of the government and the system dictate that military, police and paramilitary services must be maintained at all costs, the concentration of this much fuel in one place suggests a strategic lapse.

Putting aside the horrendous loss of life, no doubt worsened by the lack of health services in the country - yet more casualties from a system that has been complicit in the starvation and death of more than a million of its own citizens - speculation about what could have happened had the explosion taken place a few hours earlier is tempting.

For those who study North Korea and consider the nation in an honest, balanced fashion, unhindered by political policy, it is obvious that change is impossible within the present form of government. The regime finds legitimacy in perpetuating a siege mentality within the nation. Nothing draws Koreans, from either side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), closer than the perception of threat from outside, and Kim carefully maintains the illusion that the United States and others, stationed only a few kilometers away on its southern frontier, are preparing to attack and destroy the people's paradise in the north.

Time for the myth to be shattered by truth
The absolute control of resources and information has allowed this myth to continue for more than half a century, as the despots around Kim divert the nation's scant resources for their own gain and use what's left to sustain the military power they need to ensure their position and the people's allegiance. The nation, meanwhile, continues to atrophy and die.

The removal of Kim and his ruling clique would usher in the possibility of change and peace on the peninsula. Of course, with a system such as that of North Korea, a viable opposition is simply impossible, and there are no political groups waiting in the wings to take the reins and move the country forward for the betterment of all. But there is a military structure, the best-functioning bureaucracy in the country, which could, as has happened elsewhere, accept responsibility for managing the nation in a post-Kim environment.

Of course it would be naive to suggest that individuals exist within North Korea's military who would immediately become progressive architects of a new nation. The removal of all vestiges of the Kims would not ensure this. What it would ensure is the end to the dynasty and the end to unquestioned rule. With the Kims gone, no other individual or group would be able to rule with the sort of impunity the world has seen the country's inception 50 years ago. The message would be clear: if the Kims can go, anyone is vulnerable, anyone can go, and if the next group does not move the country away from the abyss, to cash in on the dividends of peace and stability, then it will eventually find itself out of the picture. Change brings the possibility of continued change.

The fuel explosion in North Korea was probably an accident. There is nothing to suggest - nor should one expect anything to emerge that would suggest - anything but fatal human error. But for those who hope for a better future for the North, this was a sign - a signal from multiple parties to Kim that he can be gotten to, and now is the time for him to go.

David Scofield, former lecturer at the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies, Kyung Hee University, is currently conducting post-graduate research at the School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield.

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Apr 24, 2004

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