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The Chernobyl effect and North Korea
By Jamie Miyazaki

A few 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.

A cynic 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 socialist self-reliance.

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 campaigners? Perhaps.

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.

Back 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.

The unknown 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 economy.

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.

Much more 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.

According to 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 and Seoul.

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.

Jamie Miyazaki is a freelance journalist and political risk analyst specializing in North Asia. He can be reached at

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Apr 30, 2004

For Kim, N Korea, intimations of mortality (Apr 24, '04)

What if Kim had been killed? (Apr 24, '04)

N Korea chooses guns over butter (Apr 1, '04)


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