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N Korea blast: The only certainty is doubt
By David Scofield

Two massive explosions in five months, one at a train station and one in the mountains, have rocked North Korea and caused rampant speculation about what's really going on in the Hermit Kingdom. The details of this latest blast in the military region near the Chinese border are not known, but North Korean officials told a visiting British diplomat that it had to blow up a mountain in order to build a hydro-electric project. Hmm.

The explosion last Thursday occurred in a remote, closely guarded military zone, reputed to be the location of missiles, even illicit nuclear projects. It took place in the North Korean county of Kim Hyeong-jik, named after Korean leader Kim Jong-il's grandfather. It sent up a huge non-nuclear cloud at midnight on the anniversary of the founding of the North Korean state 56 years ago.

The extreme control North Korea's leaders have over information dissemination within and, by extension, beyond the country guarantees more questions than answers in the wake of such detonations. Details surrounding the rail explosion in Ryongchon mere hours after Kim Jong-il's train passed through on his return trip from China in April are still elusive. Official reports then, as now, seem implausible, but without further evidence, the world's attention moves on, the truth buried like the untold numbers of victims involved.

Of course, stories and rumors continue to swirl. The train "accident" in April was an assassination attempt, many believe, pointing to Kim's crackdown on the use of mobile phones as evidence. Others, including many North Korean refugees, believe it was actually part of plan by Kim to create the illusion of an assassination attempt and use the event as justification to purge certain senior party members. And what of the Syrian technicians who were reported to be among the dead? Was this proof that that disaster was the result of a missile shipment gone awry? The first victim of war, even a "cold" one, is the truth.

The truth is no more malleable than in North Korea; facts being what the leadership, in the absence of vocal observers, decide them to be. Of course, not everyone is in the dark. The United States, China and Russia all have the remote sensing technology necessary to monitor the area for clues to what exactly ignited in the far north. Explosives leave chemical signatures that are carried aloft; blasts of different types leave behind characteristic scorches and craters.

Indeed, this mysterious event, like the Ryongchon disaster three months ago, sheds more light on the relationship between South Korea and the United States than it does of North Korea. When news of the detonation first began to break in South Korea on the weekend, anonymous sources within the South's defense establishment soon began commenting on the lack of information moving their way from their US counterparts.

The United States is South Korea's most valuable intelligence-gathering asset, providing, as it does, intelligence concerning North Korean military assets and maneuvers. But it seems the data are becoming more heavily vetted, a likely consequence of South Korea's growing ties with the North. The US is probably increasingly unsure how much of what it knows is making its way to North Korea, which would treasure US intelligence and would like to know just what Washington has gleaned and what it hasn't. Unexplained events like these explosions also highlight the fundamental changes that have taken place in the relationship between the US and South Korea.

In the final analysis, it's clear that again North Korea has managed to leave the world with more questions than answers. At the time of the explosion, British Foreign Office minister Bill Remmel was in Pyongyang to engage North Korea on human-rights issues. Immediately after word of the explosion, the British delegation "demanded", according to the British Broadcasting Corp (BBC), some explanation - and it got one. North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam-sun issued a statement indicating the explosion was part of the planned demolition of a mountain, destroyed, we are told, in preparation for a new hydro-electric project. In other words, the North Koreans decided to pack a mountain full of explosives (estimates put the explosive power at 1,000 tons) and waited until almost midnight on the eve of the country's foundation anniversary to level the mountain - yet none of this was broadcast, and so the domestic propaganda value of such an explosive display lost.

The implausibility of hydro-electric projects aside - South Korean analysts indicate the explosion took place in an area unsuitable for water-powered electricity generation - the statement does indicate one point: the North Koreans are expecting commercial satellites to produce pictures of a mountain removed, a large crater similar to what intelligence analysts have already hinted is evident from satellite photos.

It's also interesting that the mountain in question is set in the middle of one of North Korea's most heavily guarded and restricted counties. The whole area is a "military camp", Chinese observers have commented. In fact, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the region is thought to house North Korea's medium-range missiles in a complex of tunnels deep underground. The county is also the location of sites suspected to house North Korea's highly enriched uranium (HEU) project, the catalyst behind the latest nuclear crisis. North Korea admits it has a nuclear program, but denies that it involves enriched uranium.

An example of just how far the speculation goes: Some wonder whether it was possible that the three-to-four-kilometer-wide non-nuclear mushroom cloud, the first clue of the explosion last Thursday, was actually the result of a precision attack by either China or the US on these suspect sites, a prelude to the upcoming but still not scheduled six-party talks. The negotiations are aimed at persuading North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program in return for security guarantees, alternative energy supplies and massive economic assistance.

With no radioactive fallout reported by any of North Korea's neighbors, nor from regional technologies designed to monitor such events, all indications are a conventional explosion of unconventional magnitude - similar to the Massive Ordnance Air Burst (MOAB) the United States tested in the spring of 2003.

Designed to replace the Vietnam-era, 12,000-pound (5,440-kilogram) "Daisy Cutter" bomb, the US Air Force's new 22,000-pound (10,000kg), Global Positioning System (GPS)-guided MOAB, applied in multiples, could create a conventional explosion similar to that which has been described to have happened in North Korea. Tests of a single MOAB (those who witnessed it referred to it as the Mother of All Bombs) in 2003 showed that the weapon created a mushroom cloud that extended about three kilometers in the air, yet left a relatively small seismic signature. Of course, that MOAB tested in Florida was designed, as the name suggests, to burst above ground, but the crater - the missing North Korean mountain - suggests a ground or below detonation: subterranean force projection? The USAF includes "deeply buried targets" within the 10-tonne weapon's target range; it is a penetrating weapon capable of delivering the explosive power of 18,000 pounds (more than 8,000kg) of Tritonol to targets deep beneath the surface.

Such an attack from beyond, especially if it involved China, would likely not elicit an immediate, direct response from North Korea. To acknowledge an attack would mean acknowledging the target, and would also create pressure to retaliate, a hasty response that could spell the end of the Kim regime.

Of course, this could also be a demonstration of North Korea's conventional firepower, though the efficacy of such a demonstration, tremendous explosive energy in an undeliverable format, seems a bit hollow. Or perhaps human error, an accident, an ammunition depot or arms factory ignited because of faulty equipment and carelessness, or as the result of some external catalyst.

In the end, this event, like the last, will likely be swept aside in days and weeks to come as a lack of new evidence relegates the story to the wayside. We may never know the what, why, how or even who behind the blast.

David Scofield, former lecturer at the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies, Kyung Hee University, is currently conducting post-graduate research at the School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield, United Kingdom.

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Sep 15, 2004



Pyongyang seizes on Seoul's nuke dabbling
(Sep 14, '04)

N Korea's military edge over the South (Sep 10, '04)

For Kim and NK, sign of mortality
(Apr 24, '04)

S Korea's perilous revisionism
(Aug 3, '04)

 

 
   
         
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