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North Korean Trains Collide, Thousands of Casualties Feared - 2004-04-22

News reports say a rail accident in North Korea has devastated an area near the border with China. South Korean media say thousands of people may have been injured or killed. It is highly unusual for news of such a disaster to reach the rest of the world.

News reports in South Korea say two cargo trains carrying fuel collided Thursday at Ryongchon, about 50 kilometers from the border with China.

About nine hours earlier, a train carrying the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, had safely passed through the area, as he was returning from a visit to Beijing.

James Lilley, a former U.S. ambassador to both China and South Korea, and a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, describes the region around the accident site, which is near the border crossing at Dandong.

"I just know that it's heavily industrialized, that they have the rail that goes across the bridge there at Dandong into North Korea, very heavily traveled," he said.

The accident is near the Sinuiju, an industrialized zone that North Korea has opened up to foreign companies.

There was no immediate confirmation from North Korean officials about the collision. South Korea's Yonhap news agency reports Pyongyang has declared a state of emergency.

It is rare that news of major accidents in isolated North Korea reaches the outside world. Ambassador Lilley says the word may have spread so quickly in part because the accident happened near China, which is a relatively more open society that North Korea. Other analysts speculate that it may have become known because many North Koreans in the area have mobile phones given to them by relatives in China.

The accident could have devastating economic implications for the impoverished North. The country relies heavily on aid from China to keep its economy going, and much of it is transported on North Korea's aged rail system.

"The vital aspect of the North Koreans having to have these channels outside into China to survive, and then having it, because of the antiquated communication system - again, speculation - ending in a terrible accident, because they are probably so desperate to move stuff that they haven't taken the necessary precautions," he said.

Ambassador Lilley also said the accident could draw attention to what he called the disastrous conditions along the border, where tens-of-thousands of North Koreans have tried to cross into China seeking food or jobs.