The Dear Leader's private train had passed through the same switchyard hours (or maybe minutes) before the explosion.
I don't recall liquefied natural gas being mentioned and I frankly guessed it was fertilizer. Ammonium nitrate fertilizer is relatively safe but under the right conditions can be quite dangerous (ref: Texas City disaster, April 16, 1947).
A quick look at worldwide LNG consumers shows the following:
Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Kuwait, Mexico, and the UAE began importing LNG, adding to the existing 15 importers which include Belgium, Dominican Republic, France, Greece, India, Italy, Japan, Portugal, Puerto Rico, South Korea, Spain, Taiwan, Turkey, the United Kingdom (UK) and the US.
While Japan and South Korea are importing LNG, it appears that North Korea does not.
As black smoke wreathed the North Korean city where dozens were killed and thousands were injured in a train explosion on Thursday, the North Korean government reached out to the world on Friday in a rare international appeal for help in recovering from the disaster.
The train explosion, which the North Korean government characterized as an accident, leveled the densely populated core of Ryongchon, a small city of about 20,000 people near the Chinese border. The blast flattened 1,850 homes and damaged 6,350 more, and rained debris for miles around. The official casualty toll, which is expected to climb over the weekend, was 54 dead and 1,249 injured as of Friday, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross in Beijing. Original reports on Thursday said an estimated 3,000 people had been killed or injured.
In Pyongyang, the capital, North Korean officials told aid workers that the explosion was set off when railroad workers mishandled electric power connectors over a freight train, showering sparks onto a car loaded with dynamite.
On Saturday, two days after the explosion, Pyongyang's state-controlled news media made the first acknowledgment of the disaster, saying only that the damages were very serious. "An explosion occurred at Ryongchon railway station in North Phyongan Province on April 22 due to the electrical contact caused by carelessness during the shunting of wagons loaded with ammonium nitrate fertilizer and tank wagons," the Korean Central News Agency said. It added that the North "appreciates the willingness expressed by the governments of various countries and international bodies and organizations to render humanitarian assistance."
Breaking with past practice of covering up such events, North Korean diplomats made appeals for aid to Moscow, London, Geneva and the United Nations.
That move reflects the secretive nation's cautious opening to the world. Since 2000, about a dozen Western embassies and international aid missions have opened in Pyongyang. After the floods and famine in the mid-1990's, North Korean welfare officials have become accustomed to working with foreign aid groups.
On Saturday, North Korea's two neighbors, China and South Korea, each offered $1 million in emergency aid. "It's rightful to offer emergency aid program, regardless of the North's official request," the acting South Korean president, Goh Kun, told officials at a meeting in Seoul.
Prior to the meeting, Unification Minister Jeong Se Hyun told reporters, "The South Korean government will send emergency aid supplies and medicines worth $1 million to the North and will meet North Korean officials on Monday to discuss the train blast."
One aid agency official who was briefed by the government said Friday, ''They have said that 150 people died in the explosion, including some schoolchildren, some buildings have collapsed, 800 residences were destroyed, and over 1,000 people were injured.'' The official, Ann O'Mahony, regional director of Concern, told Irish state radio RTE that railroad workers at Ryongchon ''got caught in the overhead electric wiring.''
The explosion, which occurred around noon, took place only hours after a train carrying North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, passed through the station en route to Pyongyang from China.
Usually Mr. Kim's travels are only announced after he has returned home, but, under pressure from Western news reports of the explosion, Chinese television broadcast the news of his departure from Beijing about 12 hours before his predawn passage through Ryongchon. As is customary, Mr. Kim's train was joined by a decoy train after crossing the Yalu River, 10 miles north of Ryongchon.
''I would not be so surprised if it turned out to be a planned attempt,'' said Kim Sang-Hun, a human rights campaigner here, echoing remarks common in Seoul on Friday that the explosion may have been an attempt to assassinate Mr. Kim.
South Korean officials, who generally offer mildly optimistic assessments of events in North Korea, discounted assassination theories.
''It seems that possibility is not likely, considering the time of the accident,'' the South Korean unification minister, Mr. Jeong, said Friday when asked at a news conference about possible sabotage. ''With Kim's special train going through, other trains probably were shunted to sidings -- this is my speculation.''
The disaster occurred on a dilapidated railroad network, starved for investment and run under primitive safety standards. Moving slowly and stopping frequently for lack of electricity, trains are often overcrowded, sometimes carrying passengers on the roofs of cars.
Historically, North Korea has covered up train wrecks. To pierce that veil, Yonhap, a South Korean news agency, on Friday published a list of rail disasters, based on interviews with defectors. The list included a train crash that killed or injured 2,000 people in 1997 and another that killed or injured 1,000 people in January 2000. There was no breakdown of how many were killed or injured.
According to The JoongAng Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper, a passenger train packed with Chinese travelers was in the station when the accident happened. The explosion was so strong it reportedly knocked down a five story building and 12 government buildings, including a school.
The United States is a major food donor to North Korea, despite Washington's efforts to end North Korea's nuclear weapons program. On Friday, a State Department spokesman, Richard A. Boucher, told reporters about possible aid for the train disaster. ''We have provided assistance in the past for humanitarian needs in North Korea, and there's no particular obstacle to that,'' he said.
The World Food Program, Unicef, the International Red Cross and representatives of the some 20 non-governmental organizations traveled to the area to evaluate needs. The World Health Organization sent medical kits, Unicef sent water-purification tablets, the World Food Program sent food and the Red Cross sent blankets.
North Korea's health system is short on supplies and electricity, mirroring the general dilapidation of the state-dominated economy.
Several hundred Chinese live in Ryongchon, a trading city near the Yellow Sea. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Friday that two Chinese residents had been killed in the explosion and 10 injured. On Friday, cross-border rail traffic was suspended. Relatives of Chinese who had traveled to North Korea sought information from people crossing by bus on the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge, a road and rail bridge over the Yalu River.
Correction: May 28, 2004, Friday An article on April 27 about the Bush administration's offer of emergency help to North Korea for victims of a train explosion misidentified the organization designated to administer it. (The error also occurred in an article on April 24 about North Korea's appeal for aid.) It is the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which assists victims of natural and manmade disasters, not the International Committee of the Red Cross, which provides aid to victims of military conflicts. The Times was notified of the error on April 28; this correction was delayed by an editing lapse.