The Chernobyl effect and North
Korea By Jamie Miyazaki
months back, the World Food Program lamented the donor
fatigue over the always struggling, always suffering and
always troublesome North Korea, and warned of the
specter of a new food crisis. The human tragedy
currently unfolding in Ryongchon, following the
devastating rail explosion on April 22, appears to have
jolted the donor community out of its torpor, at least
for the moment.
North Korea, however, has by no
means embraced all aid, and appears to prefer
televisions, diesel oil and cement to medical supplies.
It rejected South Korea's offer to send aid overland by
truck and it rebuffed Seoul's offer to send engineers to
aid in reconstruction of the key transportation and
industrial hub not far from the Chinese border.
Ryongchon contained important shipbuilding, coal mining
and manufacturing industries - and how North Korea
handles international aid in rebuilding them is a
portent for its economic stability, national well-being
and international relations.
Because of the key
location of the train disaster and the industrial
importance of the site to the national economy, knock-on
effects - depending on Pyongyang's post-disaster
performance - could be disastrous. The economic fallout
in places like North Hamgyong province could mean civil
unrest, more unemployment and poverty, leading to an
even greater flood of refugees into China. They would
not be welcome, and more refugees would create a whole
round of new headaches for both Pyongyang and Beijing.
In response, South Korea has pledged US$22
million in aid, Australia has offered an extra $2.1
million in food aid this year, Russia flew in 13 tons of
humanitarian aid, and China has pledged $1.2 million in
emergency aid. Even Tokyo and Washington have chipped in
with emergency relief, albeit on a more modest scale.
More than 160 people were killed, 1,300 injured
and thousands left homeless in the blast said to have
been caused by contact between electric wires and
explosives in train cars. Korean leader Kim Jong-il
passed through the station eight or nine hours earlier
on his way back from talks in China.
might note that the most generous donors were those
nations most terrified of seeing North Korea collapse,
with resulting instability on the Korean Peninsula and
in northeast Asia. Cynics aside, Pyongyang's swift and
unprecedented call for aid in the face of the disaster
drew praise from both the United Nations and South
Korea. On Tuesday, Seoul's Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon
praised Pyongyang for "taking a positive view of the
international community", saying its moves will further
open up North Korea to the wider world. In the past,
North Korea, like China many years ago, had rejected
outside offers of aid in cases of disaster, preferring
Meanwhile, on April 28,
thousands of miles away and out of the media glare,
North Korean defectors and human rights activists
gathered for North Korea Freedom Day in Washington, DC.
The purpose of the rally was to bring attention to the
horrific human rights violations of Kim's regime and
lobby for the swift ratification of the North Korean
Freedom Act and the North Korean Human Rights Act
currently wending their way through Congress.
Ironically, one of the rally's main proponents
and bete noire of
Pyongyang, Dr Norbert Vollertsen, was in broad agreement
with South Korea's foreign ministry, saying that the
Ryongchon crash could well be Pyongyang's Chernobyl. It
was a reference to the Soviet nuclear reactor disaster
on April 25-26, 1986, in Ukraine.
Because of the lack of safety precautions and
the bungled disaster relief, the Chernobyl disaster is
believed by many to have accelerated the decline of the
Soviet Union and ultimately the collapse of communism. Vollertsen
is a German medical doctor who worked for a
nongovernmental organization in North Korea, received a medal
of honor by the government, then traveled extensively and changed his
mind about the "workers's paradise" - and said so.
A rare case of agreement over North Korea
between the softly-softly approach of the South Korean
government and the more hawkish human rights
An encouraging case of
openness? For all Pyongyang's swiftness in asking
for international aid, Seoul's claims that the North is
opening up to the world should be taken with a grain of
salt. The official Korean Central News Agency didn't
register the tragedy until nearly two days after it
occurred, though the disaster was not an event that
could be swept under the old-school socialist carpet of
silence or dismissed with official denials.
in 2000 in South Pyongyang province, another train
accident caused about 1,000 deaths or injuries - and
this was slow to come to light. Moreover, unlike the
slow crescendo famine of the 1990s, this recent train
disaster was instant, highly visible and near the porous
Chinese border with its constant cross border activity.
Pyongyang's calls for donor assistance were not
unqualified, and they warrant closer scrutiny. South
Korea's Unification Ministry said Pyongyang had declined
Seoul's offer to send doctors, on grounds that
"sufficient medical doctors are already dispatched", and
that medicine and food were not priority items. Despite
Russian medical relief, Pyongyang's assertion that
medicine was a priority appears to fly in the face of
World Food Program officials' reports that hospital
conditions were "very basic", with even intravenous
drips being in short supply. Meanwhile, reports that
before the explosion family members of Pyongyang's
internal security force were ordered to engage in
trading for food to overcome "temporary" problems
suggests that food remains very much a priority for all
North Koreans, not just Ryongchon's unlucky residents.
Rather than accepting medical supplies,
Pyongyang has made it known it would prefer to receive
alternate relief supplies. These include much-needed
reconstruction materials: cement, steel rooftops, diesel
oil, vinyl chloride, desks and chairs, and also more
controversial requests such as TVs and bulldozers.
Pyongyang's decision to turn down South Korean offers to
send emergency relief overland also indicates that
despite its gradual emergence into the wider world, its
integration with the international community will be on
its own terms and pace.
fallout Probably more important than Pyongyang's
speedy acceptance of international aid to its prospects
of opening up is the economic fallout of the disaster.
The North Korean government has put a 300 million
euro(US$350 million) price tag on the devastation. For a
nation with a gross domestic product (GDP) of just $15
billion (including revenue from aid) this is a
significant 2 percent of GDP. Lacking this aid would
place significant strains on its already foundering
Judging from the devastation, the
entire center of Ryongchon will need to be rebuilt from
scratch and this will take considerable time and effort:
if well implemented, this could provide North Korea with
an excellent opportunity to rebuild its decrepit
railways, utility infrastructure, and with exposure to
foreign expertise and reconstruction assistance it could
learn how to modernize its industries. The official news
agency has spoken rather optimistically of repairing the
damage within three months, but early omens again don't
bode too well. Beyond acknowledging that the devastation
"is unexpectedly gaining in scope", North Korea also
turned down South Korean offers to dispatch teams of
engineers to Ryongchon to assist in reconstruction.
North Korea needs all the overseas expertise it
can get in post-disaster reconstruction if it hopes to
get its economy back on its feet. Ryongchon was home to
a variety of enterprises. The town has shipbuilding
yards, it manufactured mining equipment and other
machinery and last year it was lauded by the state media
for its "revolutionary" productivity increases.
Unfortunately, heavy industry is a dud and has long been
in terminal decline in North Korea.
promising were the town's light industrial complexes:
primarily small and medium-sized textile plants. Light
industry had been one of the few bright spots in North
Korea's economy, registering 2.7 percent growth in 2003,
according to Bank of Korea estimates, in an otherwise
fairly dismal economic score card. Unfortunately, nearly
all of Ryongchon's light manufacturing plants were
concentrated around the station, flattened in the blast.
In the absence of a functioning welfare system
or insurance markets to cover the carnage and the
destruction of most of the town's fastest-growing
sectors, the economic fallout for the inhabitants of
Ryongchon is likely to be painful unless they receive
generous overseas assistance. Otherwise we may well see
desperate refugees from Ryongchon making the trip over
to Liaoning in China - and Ryongchon is, or was, one of
the "richer" parts of North Korea.
the most widely promulgated explanation for the
explosion, two wagons of ammonium nitrate (fertilizer)
triggered the blast. Assuming the truth of government's
claims of civilian use at the Pakma-cheol san irrigation
project, then it also raises questions about North
Korean agricultural self-sufficiency. North Korean
agriculture is highly dependent on both fertilizers and
irrigation. Any disruption to this, especially at crop
planting time, is like to further jeopardize local food
supply and make the nation even more dependant on
donors' largesse. More hunger could well mean more
refugees. More refugees means more headaches for Beijing
The economic impact of the crash is
likely to be felt far beyond Ryongchon. Although heavy
industry may be a dud, decades of Stalinist
mismanagement have placed it at the heart of North
Korea's failed economic system. Ryongchon's mining
equipment factory played a key role in one of the
nation's main industries: coal mining. The bulk of these
mines are located in the northeast of the country, an
area known for its poverty, concentration camps,
propensity for unrest and porous border with China.
Knock-on effects from the economic fallout in Ryongchon
in places like North Hamgyong Province, such as civil
unrest or even more unemployment and poverty leading to
a flood of refugees into China, could create a whole
round of new headaches for both Pyongyang and Beijing.
Unless the rail network is patched up reasonably
quickly, Ryongchon's position as a regional
transportation and logistics hub may well create further
problems for surrounding areas dependent on the creaking
railway infrastructure. The railway was especially
important for distribution of raw commodities such as
coal and grain.
If North Korea were to accept
foreign offers of reconstruction assistance, whether
from its traditional if disenchanted sponsors, China and
Russia, or from South Korea and the UN, then it might
well stand a good chance of picking up the pieces from
the wreckage of last Thursday. The praise from Seoul's
foreign minister, Ban Ki-moon, that Pyongyang was
opening up and taking a positive view of the
international community might come true, eventually.
On the other hand, squandered chances and
rejected offers of help would probably create more
headaches further down the road and perhaps more
refugees. In their own way these refugees leaving the
country may well open up North Korea - but less in the
way Ban Ki-moon had envisioned, and more in keeping with
Dr Vollertsen's observations that the Ryongchon crash
could well be Pyongyang's Chernobyl. A rare instance of
the South Korea and Dr Vollertsen agreeing on North
Korea? Probably not.
is a freelance journalist and political risk analyst
specializing in North Asia.He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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