US Offers Aid to North Korean Train Blast Victims

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - The United States will provide emergency assistance to relief agencies helping North Korea deal with last week's train accident, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced Monday.

It was not immediately clear whether North Korea would accept the aid from a country it views as its primary enemy, but it earlier refused a South Korean offer to send emergency relief by road across the heavily-armed border dividing the peninsula.

South Korean Red Cross officials said the goods could instead be shipped to a North Korean port, but the trip would take 48 hours, compared to around four hours by road.

North Korea says trains carrying fuel oil and ammonium nitrate fertilizer collided Thursday at Ryongchon railway station along the route linking Pyongyang and China, and attributed the incident to "carelessness."

Official figures put the death toll in the blast at around 160, more than half of them children, although the actual figure may be higher. Some 1,300 people were injured, and several thousand homes were damaged.

After initially keeping silent about the tragedy, the Stalinist government appealed Saturday for international assistance.

Speaking to reporters in Washington, Powell said the U.S. was informing the United Nations of its willingness to take part in whatever relief efforts were appropriate.

"America has always been a giving nation that will respond in time of need," he said.

The U.S. has been locked in an 18-month standoff with North Korea over its attempts to acquire nuclear weapons. Pyongyang says it needs a nuclear deterrent in the light of Washington's "hostility."

Multi-party efforts to defuse the crisis have thus far been unsuccessful, although a third round of talks on the subject may be held in Beijing before mid-year.

The U.S. accuses North Korea of violating an international agreement to freeze its nuclear programs. It responded in late 2002 by suspending the shipment of fuel aid to North Korea, which it had been providing under that same agreement.

Despite the standoff, the U.S. has remained the largest donor of food aid to North Korea, and last year committed 100,000 tons of food for distribution through the U.N.'s World Food Program, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Monday.

In the past, the U.S. voiced concern about whether the food aid was actually reaching the needy people for whom it was intended, but Boucher said there had been "a slight improvement" in the monitoring and access situation last year.

U.S. emergency aid for the train disaster would go through international agencies such as the U.N. and Red Cross, he said.

"We would provide the assistance and then rely on those organizations to make sure it gets to the right people," said Boucher.

Meanwhile, a German doctor who has worked in North Korea, painted a bleak picture of the state of the hospitals that would have to cope with the large number of injured people.

"There is no medicine, no bandage material, sometimes even no soap and running water," Norbert Vollertsen said.

Things were so desperate he recalled donating skin from his own thigh for a graft for a child in 1999.

Vollertsen worked as a physician in North Korea for 18 months in 1999 and 2000, but was expelled after speaking out about human rights abuses and accusing the government of systematically starving its own people.

He now works out of South Korea where he lobbies on behalf of North Korean refugees and defectors, and campaigns for the fall of the Kim Jong-il regime.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow