Mystery surrounds timing of rail blast in N. Korea, Kim visit

Special to World
Tuesday, April 27, 2004

[Click here to zoom.] A satellite photo of the North Korean city of Ryongchon taken May 13, 2003 shows the train line running from the top left of the image to the bottom center.
SEOUL - The devastating explosion involving railroad cars carrying chemical and fuel products has raised questions about the timing of the blast and that of the passage along the same tracks by the North Korean leader.

The explosion occurred in the rail junction town of Ryongchon, 12 miles south of the North's Yalu River border with China. Pyongyang's Korea Central News Agency attributed the blast to "carelessness during the shunting of wagons loaded with ammonium nitrate fertilizer and tank wagons." Electrical contact from overhead wires had triggered the blast, causing damage that KCNA acknowledged was "very serious."

Was the ammonium nitrate was for fertilizer, as claimed by North Korea, or for rockets and other weaponry manufactured in and around Ryongchon, an industrial community of more than 300,000, many of them in the armed forces or military industries or both.

Another question was whether Kim Jong-Il had passed through the town nine hours earlier, as had widely been reported by Western news agencies, or had been there closer to the blast.

Ruined houses in Ryongchon, North Korea, on April 26, following a huge train blast on April 22 in this photo released by the Korean Central News Agency.
Because at least 76 of the 161 people killed were children, speculation has arisen that they had been marshaled to wave at Kim and his 40-man entourage as they sped by in a special train enroute to Pyongyang. Kim's train had crossed the bridge over the Yalu River early that morning, taking him on the final homeward leg of a journey to Beijing that had begun the previous weekend.

"That's part of the mystery of the whole situation," said Norbert Vollertsen, the German physician who spent more than a year ministering to North Koreans until he was expelled three years ago for crusading for human rights. "Many military and government people were there as well as students."

The immediate explanation was that the schoolchildren were just pouring out of a nearby school, flattened in the blast along with an agricultural college and the railroad.

They were at the epicenter of an explosion that aid workers said destroyed almost everything within 500 meters, creating a number of craters, destroying 129 public buildings and nearly 2,000 homes and tearing down buildings as far away as 4 kilometers.

While the government said there was no sign of sabotage, the South Korean gossip mill was rife with rumors about an attempted plot against Kim. Many here found it difficult to believe the blast was not a botched attempt on the "Dear Leader's" life by discontented military officers.

The rumors intensified as the hours and days passed after the blast with Kim Jong Il failing to make any public appearances. "North Korean Leader Not Seen in Public Since Train Blast," said the headline over one report by Yonhap News Agency.

Copyright 2004 East West Services, Inc.

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