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N Korea train blast cannot drive nuke talks
By Kosuke Takahashi

TOKYO - The ferocious train explosion in North Korea last week, the request for aid and the outpouring of international assistance has prompted speculation that just maybe the Hermit Kingdom will humanize a bit, open up a bit, recognize that it needs the outside world and cooperate in forthcoming working-level talks on defusing the Pyongang nuclear crisis.

The first six-party working-level talks on defusing the North Korean nuclear crisis will be held May 12 in Beijing in advance of a formal session yet to be scheduled this summer. Is there a rail link between Thursday's announcement of the talks and last week's devastating train explosion in North Korea, accompanied by an outpouring of international aid? Probably not.

Informed observers say the explosion, the details of which are still not known, will have little or no bearing on the first working-level talks scheduled in advance of formal six-party talks expected, but not yet scheduled for this summer. The parties are North Korea and South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States, all but Pyongyang trying to put a permanent end to North Korea's nuclear programs in return for cheap energy, security guarantees and economic assistance.

The reasons are twofold: One, Pyongyang's response to the disaster hasn't revealed any change in North Korea's hostile attitudes toward the international community. Two, the United States is far more concerned with Iraq and the fighting in Fallujah than with North Korea - and it doesn't score points with voters by accommodating Pyongyang in any way.

"Despite the setup of the working group meeting on May 12, unfortunately the [US President George W] Bush administration is tied up with Iraqi issues, especially about [fighting insurgents in] Fallujah," said Douglas Ramsey, a consultancy manager with Jane's Information Group, affiliated with Jane's Defense Weekly. Ramsey is a commentator on security and defense issues, including Asia.

"The North's nuclear issue has become the back-burner issue at the Bush administration," Ramsey said in an interview with Asia Times Online. "Six-party talks will see no progress, unless some event drives it. Event-driven. But the train explosion is not big enough to drive it," said Ramsey, who is visiting Tokyo.

The impasse is likely to continue, but so will talks, at least that much is clear from Kim Jong-il's train trip to Beijing to meet Chinese leaders. He passed through the Ryongchon train station just eight or nine hours before it was flattened by an explosion last weekend. More than 160 people were killed, about half of them children; 1,300 were injured and more than 8,100 homes and 30 public buildings were destroyed, including an elementary school. Key manufacturing and industrial infrastructure, important to the failing economy, also were destroyed or damaged.

It's tempting to think that North Korea, which had refused international assistance in the past in disasters and famine, was revealing a new spirit of openness this time. Pyongyang, however, has been highly selective, refusing doctors, medicine, medical equipment, food, water and reconstruction teams from South Korea. It rejected the swift transport of supplies from south to north by road. This is the same old Pyongyang, observers say, that allows its people to suffer, and instead, requests color television sets, concrete and diesel fuel from the international community. The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reports that stricken victims rushed back into burning buildings in order to "rescue" portraits of the "Dear Leader", Kim Jong-il. That speaks volumes about rigid ideology but says little about a new attitude in Pyongyang toward the international community.

So, this time again it is thinking about its regime's well-being first, before that of treatment-needy children. "Color televisions are not [the] answer for those children," said Ramsey. This type of request speaks volumes about the regime and its lack of sensibilities to the international perception," he said.

A week after the scourge of the massive rail explosion near the Chinese border, details of its damage are trickling out from the Hermit Kingdom. The Stalinist nation took the unusual step - for Pyongyang - of officially announcing the domestic catastrophe and welcoming aid workers to the site just two days after the explosion. Even in the "great famine" of the 1990s, in which millions of people died of starvation, North Korea did not seek aid from the international community. This also speaks volumes about the gravity of the explosion.

North Korea has refused any sort of external influence since its birth at the conclusion of World War II and has always avoided showing any weakening of internal control. It never wants to open the door because that would admit too many unwanted influences and the regime might come apart.

What really blew up?
Was it a nitrate explosion or a propane explosion? Details of the cause of the accident are still unknown, but eventually this too will trickle out in coming weeks and reveal a lot about North Korea's current energy and cash situation. Early reports said it was caused by the crash of two trains, one carrying fuel oil and the other liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), or some sort of chemicals, during the shunting of cargo. But later on, KCNA said two rail wagons, believed to be loaded with ammonium nitrate used for fertilizer, blew up during a shunting operation with fuel oil wagons. The information has been complicated and confusing at best.

"We are not sure about the cause," John Sparrow, the Red Cross' representative in Beijing, said in a telephone interview on Thursday with Asia Times Online. "There are many versions of what happened. In the first stage, some even said it [was] caused by dynamite."

Photographs and video footage from the site apparently showed the explosion of some combustible products. The explosion scattered debris over two kilometers of damage radius and left children injured by a wave of glass, rubble and blasts of hot air.

The Customs General Administration of China has been presenting intriguing and puzzling data to oil market players in Asia, possibly relating to the tragedy. Surprisingly, in light of its own chronic energy shortages, North Korea recently has been exporting LPG, commonly known as propane, to China. For example, the latest data showed it exported to China 1,225 tonnes of propane in January, and 608 tonnes last November, while Japan only exported to China 814 tonnes and 3 tonnes during the same respective periods.

China is also suffering an energy shortage and needs more fuel for its super-heated economy. Does it aim to bolster Pyongyang's desperately weak economy by providing hard currency for the gas? Or is it just to give North Korea some "carrots" in order to win some political compromise in the stalled six-party talks?

The explosion occurred very close to the North Korean border with China. Traded propane could well be related to the blast. Even if propane was not the cause, the world might want to know how many tons of ammonium nitrate, which Pyongyang cited as the combustible material, exploded, because this also has a bearing on the North's cash and energy situations.

Some medical aid workers saw parallels between the fiery train blast and the 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, Ukraine, that pushed the old Soviet Union to reform and finally collapse. But North Korea still represents the regime and personality cult built on mistrust of all outsiders since its inception, and this tragedy clearly will not nudge the Hermit Kingdom out of isolation.

Ramsey, the Jane's commentator, said that the huge amount of aid from the international community, including those in the six-party talks, will not induce North Korea to give up its nuclear program and what experts believe to be several weapons. North Koreans, he pointed out, always have extended their hands for assistance and given nothing in return. So far, there's no reason to change.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)

May 1, 2004

Chernobyl Effect and N Korea
(Apr 30, '04)

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

What if Kim had been killed
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(Apr 1, '04)


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