Fri, Apr 30, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Mysteries surround N Korea blast

STRANGE DAYS INDEEDSome outsiders have started to wonder why such a disproportionate number of the injured were children - and where exactly Kim Jong-il is

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , TOKYO

To hear North Korea's state media tell it, in the midst of an inferno of exploding rail cars and dying children, several heroic women made the ultimate sacrifice, running into blazing buildings in frantic attempts to save treasured portraits of Kim Jong-il and his late father, Kim Il-sung.

"Many people of the county evacuated portraits before searching after their family members or saving their household goods," the Korean Central News Agency wrote approvingly from Ryongchon, the railroad town where a huge explosion killed at least 161 people and wounded 1,300 last week.

"They were buried under the collapsing building to die a heroic death as they were trying to come out with portraits of President Kim Il-sung and leader Kim Jong-il," it said.

In North Korea, where the state personality cult is stronger than in Mao Zedong's (毛澤東) China or Stalin's Russia, loyal citizens need no reminder that their leaders are more important than their own children.

A staple of North Korea's propaganda mythology, tales of people sacrificing themselves for portraits of Kim Jong-il, known as the Dear Leader, are being reissued at a time when speculation unleashed by the explosion is swirling.

For starters, where is the Dear Leader?

One week after the blast, the state media has not chronicled any new doings by North Korea's secretive leader. Admittedly, Kim lives a Wizard of Oz existence. In his 30 years of political life and 10 years as supreme leader, he is not known to have given a public speech. To prevent assassination attempts, the North Korean media never give clues as to where he is or will be.

On April 21, Chinese state television reported that he had just left Beijing for home; everyone knows it is a 12-hour train ride to Pyongyang.

South Korean reports said his train passed through Ryongchon before dawn on Thursday, about eight hours before the blast.

In the days after the blast, reporters in Dandong, on the Chinese border, said Kim's entourage had been joined by a decoy train when he crossed the border into North Korea, a standard safety precaution.

Another nagging question: what caused the blast? Without citing a source or witness, KCNA, the North Korean news agency, said the "explosion was caused by the contact of electric lines during the shunt of wagons loaded with nitric ammonium fertilizer and tank wagons." This explosion, KCNA said, was "equivalent to the blast of about 100 bombs each weighing one tonne."

How that information could be known remains unclear. Photographs and accounts of foreign aid workers allowed to tour the scene give a picture of total devastation, deep craters surrounded by hundreds of yards of debris and desolation. It is unlikely that any witness to the ignition could have survived the blast.

Children accounted for almost half the death toll. About 500 of the 1,300 people wounded were blinded; scores of them were children, according to foreign aid workers who toured hospital wards in Sinuiju, the regional center. Some analysts have speculated that the children might have been lined up to wave at the train of a passing dignitary.

"So let's ask why half the casualties were kids and why so many of them have facial/eye injuries," Robyn Lim, a conservative military analyst in Japan, wrote.

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