Reeling, hungry, N Korea heads to
nuke talks By Marwaan
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.
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.
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
"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
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
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
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.
reaction following the devastation was predictable.
Pyongyang was tight-lipped. The local media hardly
breathed a word for the first two days.
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,
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
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
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
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
"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."
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
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.
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.