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April 22, 2004

North Korea is one of the most evil regimes on the planet, but as is often the case with dictatorships, the ordinary people there are just pawns. 3,000 dead in this manner is a tragedy, no matter the country in which they live.

Do not forget, though, that in North Korea 3,000 is a small number of dead, compared to the number of people who die of starvation or in the gulags every year.

Via Fox News:

Up to 3,000 people were killed or injured Thursday in a horrific train collision and explosion at a station near the Chinese border, according to South Korean news media, just hours after North Korean President Kim Jong Il had passed through the same spot.
Pity the death toll wasn't just one person. You know which one I mean. Ya, the one with (allegedly) the world's largest pornography collection and (undoubtedly) the world's worst haircut.
Almost immediately following the crash of two trains carrying oil and liquefied petroleum, rumors spread that it might have been a deliberate attempt on Kim’s life.
An extraordinarily poor attempt, if that's the case. But I doubt it. "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity." (Or incompetence, or laziness, or....)
But senior Defense Department officials told Fox News there wasn't any information to substantiate such theories and the collision was more likely a tragic accident.
Indeed. It's very sad for the people who died, and for those left behind. I suspect, however, that the suffering is only beginning.
North Korean authorities placed a total news blackout on information about the crash, according to Chinese news reports, taking such drastic measures as cutting international phone lines in and around the town of Ryongchon, where the collision happened.
I didn't know North Korea allowed any international phone lines. That's actually a bit of a surprise to me -- but I'm not surprised that they've been shut down.
North Korea declared a state of emergency after the crash.
I'd wager that ROK and US forces in Korea have upped their readiness levels as well. When I was stationed in Korea, we'd be put on alert if a North Korean Peoples' Army colonel sneezed too loudly.
"The area around Ryongchon station has turned into ruins as if it were bombarded," South Korea's Yonhap news agency quoted witnesses as saying. "Debris from the explosion soared high into the sky and drifted to Sinuju," a North Korean town on the border with China, the agency said.
Maybe they were testing a low-yield nuke.

(No, I don't actually believe that.)
(But I wouldn't put it past the Norks to test weapons on their own peasants.)

About nine hours before the blast, Kim had reportedly passed through the station where the collision happened as he returned from a secret trip to China, South Korea's all-news cable channel, YTN, reported. Kim met with the country's leaders and discussed the standoff over the North's nuclear weapons program.
Secret trip? Secret? I'm pretty sure it was in the news several times in the past few days.
North Korea's state-run news agency on Thursday confirmed that Kim had made a secretive trip to China on Monday through Wednesday, but carried no comments on the reported explosion.
Oooohhhh... secret from the North Korean people, they mean. Well, that'd be no surprise. Bear in mind that all Nork media is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the state. The people don't hear, see, or read anything their rulers don't want them to know about.

When I was over there in the late '80s and early '90s, the story was that televisions made in North Korea had no channel tuning knob -- they were pre-tuned to receive only the one state-run channel. I've seen examples of Nork TV from that era; it was the most noxious propaganda I've ever seen -- worse even than WW2 Nazi-produced propaganda.

A substantial number of Chinese citizens were believed to be among the presumed 3,000 victims, sources in China said.

Many of the survivors were transferred back to China to receive treatment, which seemed to be how news of the catastrophe spread despite the North Korea-imposed news blackout.

The Yonhap report of the state-of-emergency declaration gave no details. It said officials of the secretive North Korean government had put in place a "type of state of emergency" around the town of Ryongchon.

A "type of state of emergency"?

That might as well read "The execution rounding-up of the usual suspects has begun."

In a sign of the accident's magnitude, the government cut international phone lines to prevent news of the crash from leaking across its borders, Yonhap said, citing no sources.
"Cut international phone lines...." What, both of them? How will Kim order up his weekly supply of hookers?
James Lilley, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and to China, said he saw a possibility that anti-Kim forces could have tried to carry out an assassination attempt like this.

"They realize the system depends so much on him and the system is so bad and punitive that some people could have just taken the situation into their own hands," he told Fox News.

I'm of two minds on that. I don't think this was any sort of assassination attempt.

I don't recall having explicitly mentioned it here previously, but just in case I haven't: my Army career was in Military Intelligence, wherein I was a Korean linguist as well as an Electronic Warfare operator. It was a major element of my job, and that of my fellow MI troopers, to be as clueful as possible about the Norks. We studied the language, of course, but also the culture, history and the current events of the day.

Even given what I know of North Korea, I still haven't decided whether Kim Jong Il really is the power in North Korea, or if he is a mere figurehead, a puppet of the generals of the NKPA.

During his lifetime, there was a fanatical cult of personality built up around the late unlamented Kim Il Sung; in the latter decades of his life, a similar cult was built around his son Kim Jong Il. This is, of course, extremely unusual in a communist country, but it was done very effectively, and to ensure that there would be a smooth transition of power in the event of the death or disability of the father. [While I cannot say for certain, I'd wager it is a crime (or at least, would warrant a beating) for a North Korean citizen to refer to Kim without the proper honorific terms prepended and/or appended to his name.]

Given such a cult of personality, it would have been insane for the generals to dispose of the younger Kim after his father's death. As a figurehead, he would be extraordinarily valuable domestically.

What I can't figure out is whether Kim Jong Il is the puppet, or the puppet master.

Do I think he has actual leadership skills? No. I think he's barking-at-the-moon crazy. And possibly crazy like a fox.

I do think that he benefits from having a couple generations of North Koreans raised and indoctrinated to believe that he is the nearest thing to God on Earth (official atheism notwithstanding.) But whether the inner circle of people closest to him control him or are controlled by him remains to be seen. We may never find out -- not soon, at any rate.

Kim apparently had a soft spot for Ryongchon, which is about 35 miles from the Chinese border. He often visited the town and its machine-tool factory.
Hitler and Stalin no doubt had their own favorite towns, too.
"If it was an assassination attempt, it was a poor one," John Wolfsthal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told Fox News. He said it was doubtful because of the nine-hour difference between when Kim passed through and when the collision and explosion occurred.

But Wolfsthal added that the brutal dictatorial Kim regime would likely use the crash to its advantage.

"The leadership may use this as an opportunity to clamp down on whatever dissent or instability there might be," he told Fox. "We will be watching closely to see how Kim Jong Il responds."

Can you say "Reichstag fire"?

Dictatorships are typically not reluctant to use any excuse to eliminate their enemies, but they also usually have to be a bit careful how they go about it. I think this accident is big enough to give the Norks a pretense to seriously crack down. The losers will be the North Korean people.

Posted by Russ at 02:39 PM, April 22, 2004 in News

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Could it be as simple as freight scheduling messed up due to Kim's "special" train? The Stalin style 'no-thinking-take-no-chances' worker climate could account for the rest. How many tracks in that area?

Posted by: Stephen at April 22, 2004 05:35 PM

I don't know how many tracks there are in the area -- I'd guess "not many" -- but as I understand it, the accident occurred in or near the station, where confusion is more likely regardless of what country you're talking about.

Posted by: Russ at April 22, 2004 08:36 PM