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Reeling, hungry, N Korea heads to nuke talks
By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK - A deadly train explosion in North Korea two weeks ago - and North Korea's uncharacteristic request for aid - have come to be regarded as a moment to gauge hints of possible change and openness in the tightly controlled, secretive country. Most observers doubt that it signifies anything of major political or diplomatic import.

Reeling from the April 22 train disaster and suffering an acute food shortage, North Korea heads to Beijing May 12 for working-level talks on ending its nuclear weapons programs. Some see its tentative openness in seeking disaster aid as a possible good omen, but others say it only shows that Pyongyang is desperate for help. They note that Pyongyang immediately rejected doctors, nurses, medicine and reconstruction engineers from South Korea. Other South Korean aid had to be transported the long, slow way, by sea, and not over land.

After the disaster, Pyongyang agreed to attend working-level talks on its nuclear program, are a prelude to the major six-party talks to be held before June. They include North Korea and South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.

Still, an United Nations official who was among the few foreigners permitted to visit the site of the railway disaster said he saw signs of limited openness that had often been regarded as unthinkable under the regime of President Kim Jong-il.

These signs included the freedom to walk around the disaster site unimpeded and take photographs. In addition, Anthony Banbury, head of the Asia office of the World Food Program (WFP), had access to the hospitals where the victims of the train blast were treated.

"We had access to walk around where we wanted to and take pictures," Banbury told journalists this week at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand. "The director of the hospital offered to brief us. He let us see the conditions of the patients."

"This was a bit unusual, because we had complete access to the patients," he added. "The doctors said that 60 percent of the patients in one hospital were children."

The photographs that accompanied Banbury's account showed just how badly the children were hurt by North Korea's worst train disaster. There were images of children with burned faces, bandaged eyes and heads wrapped in gauze.

Most of them came from two schools located near the point where the train explosion took place in the town of Ryongchon, near the border with China. The two schools were damaged beyond repair, said the WFP official.

That scale of destruction was the case with other nearby buildings, too. "The houses nearby were flattened," Banbury said. "At the blast site there was a large crater big enough for four city buses."

The train disaster left over 150 people dead, including 76 children, while 1,300 people were injured, according to the North Korean government.

According to a UN statement from North Korea, the damage to property included 1,850 homes, many large buildings, schools and offices that, in all, "represent up to 40 percent of the area of the township".

North Korean officials said the explosion occurred when electric wires came into contact with explosive contents, including ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, in train carriages.

The initial reaction following the devastation was predictable. Pyongyang was tight-lipped. The local media hardly breathed a word for the first two days.

Then, the North Korean regime took the unusual step of acknowledging that an accident had taken place and appealed for international assistance. The local media, too, broke new ground by announcing the Ryongchon disaster, but with its own face-saving twist.

The state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), for instance, brought up the event by writing about the heroism of some women who sacrificed their lives when they tried to save portraits of Kim and his late father, Kim Il-sung.

But even this would not have happened a few years ago, when the government preferred to keep news of such disasters "more isolated", said Banbury. "They had no choice but to report the information because UN agencies were going back and forth from the site."

Such was not the case in 2000 when information about a train accident south of Pyongyang, which resulted in several deaths and injuries, was suppressed. A similar cover-up took place during the early part of a far more devastating crisis - the famine in the 1990s that, according to some estimates, killed between half a million to 3 million North Koreans.

According to Koreans based in Thailand, the assistance that North Korea has received since it went public with the April disaster goes against the grain of self-reliance or juche that Pyongyang has always upheld as a state principle.

"Self-reliance has been important for national pride in North Korea," Mira Kim, vice president of the Korean Association in Thailand, told IPS. "It must be humiliating for the government to open its doors and accept assistance."

Among the countries pouring aid into the country are China, Russia and South Korea.

"It is also possible that they may have started to accept the reality that they cannot be self-reliant and isolated any more," added Mira Kim. "But this should not be interpreted as the beginnings of dramatic change."

Senior South Korean journalist In Young-kim is also not ready to declare that Pyongyang's uncharacteristic behavior following the train disaster is an indicator of change in one of Asia's most oppressive countries.

"What happened after the train disaster does not amount to a shift in policy," Kim, Asia correspondent for the Korean Broadcasting System, told IPS. "It was very rare, because there are little signs elsewhere to suggest a shift."

The more open attitude by the Kim regime over the disaster is a case of a government that is "desperate for help", he said. "Nothing else."

In North Korea, which was established as an independent communist-ruled country in 1948, human rights violations have been rampant and food shortages continue to be acute. According to WFP, the UN food assistance agency, malnutrition is widespread among the country's 23 million population. "Almost 41 percent of children under five years suffer from chronic malnutrition," said Banbury.

Meantime, the WFP in Brussels appealed for international assistance for North Korea, IPS reported. "We need a further $150 million to solve the food crisis there," John Aylieff, WFP Brussels representative, said. "We expect the food funding that we've got now to last until June, but after that we do not know what will happen."

In January, the WFP, the food aid arm of the United Nations, appealed for $171 million to fund the food shortage in North Korea, "but we have so far only received $21 million," Aylieff said. WFP says North Korea has been producing more food in recent years and nutrition has improved somewhat, but "there is still not enough to feed its population of around 23 million," Aylieff said. About 9 percent of the children are "acutely malnourished" and 21 percent are classified as "underweight", but the WFP says the food crisis is unnoticed as the international community focuses on the nuclear weapons crisis.

Still, the likelihood of the government easing its grip on power to help its youngest citizens - victims of the disaster or of malnutrition in general - appears remote, given that state priorities include building missiles, keeping its army strong, pursuing its nuclear program and promoting public devotion towards the country's reclusive leader, Kim.

This week, the North Korean leader made his first public appearance since the train blast, according to KCNA. But there was little to suggest that a whiff of change was in the air: there was no mention of what the Dear Leader, as he is known, had to say about the disaster.

(Inter Press Service)

May 7, 2004

N Korea train blast won't move nuke talks (May 1, '04)

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

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


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