| A file picture of a North Korean train passing through the suburbs of Pyongyang. (AFP)
Seoul, April 22 (Reuters): Up to 3,000 people were killed or injured when two trains loaded with fuel collided and exploded at a North Korean station today, hours after leader Kim Jong-il had passed through, South Korea’s YTN television said.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, which spoke of widespread destruction, said there were thousands of casualties and some form of emergency had been declared in the area near the border with China.
“The station was destroyed as if hit by a bombardment and debris flew high into the sky,” Yonhap said, quoting unidentified Chinese sources. YTN in its report quoted witnesses.
Neither Yonhap nor YTN gave a breakdown of deaths and injuries and there was no independent confirmation of the reports. Communist North Korea, one of the world’s most reclusive and impoverished countries, has not said anything on the disaster.
Yonhap quoted sources in the Chinese city of Dandong that borders the North as saying the explosion occurred around 0400 GMT — nine hours after Kim’s special train was reported to have passed on its way to Pyongyang after a visit to China.
The sources said trains carrying fuel and liquefied petroleum gas collided at Ryongchon station 15 km south of the Yalu river border near the Yellow Sea.
There were rumours the fuel was a gift from China to Kim and his energy-starved country, Yonhap said. Ryongchon is transliterated as Yongchon in South Korea and appears that way on most maps in the West.
Yonhap also quoted a senior defence ministry official as saying the South’s military — which eavesdrops on North Korea — had heard about the blast through “intelligence channels directed against the North”.
There was no immediate suggestion the blast was anything other than an accident.
But the explosion came after Kim met China’s new leadership during a rare foreign visit to discuss the North’s nuclear weapons plans, tentative economic reforms and aid that has in the past included fuel.
North Korea’s official media made no mention of the disaster, but earlier today they broke their silence on Kim’s three-day trip to Beijing — strongly suggesting he was safely back in Pyongyang.
International telephone lines to the area appear to have been cut to prevent information about the explosion getting out, Yonhap added.
The North’s creaking medical system would be hard pressed to cope with a large number of casualties, but there was no word any international agency or neighbouring country had been asked for help.
“We have not yet received official information on the accident. We are trying to confirm the report,” a unification ministry spokesman said in Seoul. Other officials at various government agencies also had no information.
At the UN in New York, a North Korean diplomat said he had no information except what he had heard from outside reports. Yonhap said the Chinese sources said people in Dandong were concerned their friends or relatives could have been caught up in the blast. Traders from both sides criss-cross the border area.
| Kim Jong-il. (AFP)
A railway worker on the Chinese side of the Dandong border crossing said he had not heard of a blast and had seen no signs of any emergency effort under way.
“The closest station to here in North Korea is in Sinuiju (on the border), and I would have heard it. But I didn’t hear anything,” he said by telephone.
Residents in Pyongyang said by telephone there was nothing unusual in the capital. North Korean television was broadcasting military songs and music — standard evening fare.
Masood Hyder, the World Food Programme coordinator in Pyongyang, said he was not sure if or when the government might inform his agency of the reported accident.