One of the most important events of North Korean history of the 2000s was the Ryongchon catastrophe.
It was a massive explosion, which occurred at Ryongchon station, in North Phyongan province, the same day Kim Jong Il’s train passed through. Long rumored to have been an assassination attempt on the so-called “Great Commander,” it resulted in a five year long era of counter-reforms in North Korea.
HOW IT HAPPENED
The explosion occurred on April 22, 2004. Apart from being the birthday of Vladimir Lenin – almost forgotten in North Korea – this day had little other significance to the DPRK.
Let us remember what the situation was like in 2004. North Korea was run by the father of the current ruler, Kim Jong Il, who had been promoting limited reform inside the country.
Less than a year had passed since the beginning of the construction of the Kaesong Industrial Complex. South Korean tourists were permitted to regularly visit the North for the first time in history, and Pyongyang had not yet abandoned its plan to make the border city of Sinuiju – just near Ryongchon – into a Macao-style special region, with a capitalist economy and freedoms for its dwellers.
The country was also slowly recovering from the famine it had endured in the late 1990s. Optimists believed that Kim Jong Il – seen as a less cruel and more pragmatic man than his father – would promote economic reform.
Pessimists pointed out that the second Kim had not implemented them when North Koreans had been starving in the 1990s, or following yet another collapse of nuclear weapons-related talks: the recently occurred breakdown of the Agreed Framework, a bad sign for Pyongyang.
In April, Kim Jong Il conducted a visit to China. As always, the Great Commander used his trademark train to go to the neighboring country, and, as usual, the visit was unannounced. The reason for the visit was likely the first peaceful transition of power in communist China: Jiang Zemin was completing the process of transferring power to the new leader, Hu Jintao, marking the transformation of the country from a dictatorship to an oligarchy.
After talks with both Jiang and Hu, Kim took his train back to North Korea. The route was a pretty standard and predictable one – from Beijing to Dandong, then across the Friendship bridge to Sinuiju, North Korea, then down the railroad to Pyongyang.
Anyone who knew when the Great Leader was returning would have known this route, and would have known that the third station on the Sinuiju-Pyongyang road after Sinuiju Youth and Sinuiju South would be Ryongchon, named after a nearby town.
Kim Jong Il had been promoting limited reforms inside the country
And then it happened. On April 22, the day when everyone interested knew where Kim Jong Il was, the day when he was most vulnerable, ten minutes after noon, a massive explosion shattered Ryongchon station.
The station was obliterated in an instant and so was the railroad nearby. Homes within the blast radius were shattered, roofs were torn, walls were broken. Moreover, the town’s elementary school was located near the blast – and there were children among the victims.
The death toll was in hundreds – and so many more people lost a place to live and work.
But, undoubtedly, the most horrifying thing for the authorities was the timing. An explosion of such a scale would have been enough to obliterate Kim Jong Il’s armored train – the train that was supposed to pass through the station on this very day. Surely, it must have been an assassination attempt they failed to predict.
As the explosion occurred near China – and after Kim Jong Il had visited Beijing – it naturally attracted special attention from the PRC. The embassy was alerted immediately and local Chinese citizens provided their testimonies. Thus, China was probably the most informed foreign nation about the case.
An article by the Chinese author Jiang Yuan (江源) in the June 2004 issue of the journal “Social Review” (社会观察), gives the following statistics about the explosion:
At least 161 men and women were killed in the explosion, including 76 primary school students and one Chinese citizen. More than 1300 were injured. Within a few kilometers of Ryongchon Station, 1850 homes were completely damaged, 6350 were partially collapsed. Twelve public facilities were completely destroyed, and ten were partially damaged.
Reportedly, some locals thought that a war with the United States had begun and that Ryongchon had suffered a nuclear attack. They turned on their radios, but for several days, the state media did not report on the incident.
China was probably the most informed foreign nation about the case
But on April 25, when the country was celebrating the alleged anniversary of the “Korean People’s Revolutionary Army”, the Rodong Sinmun informed the people about condolences Beijing and Moscow had sent to Pyongyang.
Hu Jintao’s letter directly mentioned the explosion in Ryongchon – and as a result, in a somewhat roundabout way, it was recognized by the state. The atmosphere of celebrations in Pyongyang – when someone would have expected mourning – came as a shock to foreign journalists.
The next day, the Rodong Sinmun assured the locals that the central government institutions were working to assist them. KCNA also published a story about locals saving portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il during the explosion. One of them was particularly striking:
“As a massive explosion struck the building of the Ryongchon elementary school and fire broke out in class, a teacher named Han Un Suk, 32 years old, evacuated portraits of President Kim Il Sung and Comrade Kim Jong Il to a safe place and after it went to save seven children – and perished in the process.”
While we cannot confirm if this is true, the fact that it got published along with several other similar reports shows that the DPRK openly proclaimed that portraits of the Leaders were more important than human life. The story was not an exception, as reports about people demonstrating their noble qualities by prioritizing portraits over children appeared later as well.
Foreign nations suggested assistance to North Korea. Ultimately, Pyongyang decided to take medical supplies but refused foreign medics access to the catastrophe.
As of 2019, one cannot say with certainty what the cause of the explosion was.
Conflicting reports came out soon after April 22. There were reports that it was triggered by two dynamite-carrying trains coming into contact with a naked power cable.
Another hypothesis suggested that a train carrying ammonium nitrate-based fertilizer collided with another one. There were also suggestions of a train carrying oil tanks or liquid gas, or that an explosion was deliberately caused by a cell phone.
The official North Korean version, published in the Choson Sinbo, was sort of a mix of the above: an ammonium nitrate-based fertilizer-carrying train and a train carrying oil had come in a contact with a naked electric cable.
Such diversity of opinion suggests that there is no way to determine its cause with certainty.
One cannot say with certainty what the cause of the explosion was
More news about the catastrophe emerged in 2015, when a South Korean journal came out with a story which looked so odd that it might be true.
Its origins lay in a completely different age – the 1950s – when Kim Il Sung, free from Moscow’s control, started to purge the diaspora of Soviet Koreans in the DPRK. Those who fled to the Soviet Union lived in seclusion for decades, as Soviet censorship prevented them from speaking publicly about North Korea.
It was only in 1989-1990, when Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms resulted in a dramatic liberalization, that those who lived long became politically active again. One of the organizations they created was called “Korean Front for Democracy, Unification and National Salvation” (조선민주통일구국전선). In 2015 one of its members (probably very, very old) told a South Korean correspondent, Song Hong-gun, that it was them who was behind the explosion.
This is highly unlikely to be a case of fake news. Someone inventing a story would likely have never thought in this direction – we would have probably heard something about factions, conspiracies within the government or from China – but not about people from the DPRK’s distant past coming to exercise their revenge.
Thus, we can safely assume that this dialog actually happened. The question is, was Song Hong-gun’s interlocutor – called Mr. A in the piece – telling the truth?
According to Mr. A, he was living in one of the former Soviet states – and was a member of the local wing of the Front led by Ho Ung Bae, a North Korean man, who had been granted refuge by the USSR in 1958.
He discussed their activities with the journalist, which mostly involved meeting with other famous escapees, conducting reports on human rights abuses in the DPRK, and attempting to earn money through doing business – the latter was done outside of the Front, of course.
The conversation, per permission of Mr. A, was recorded. And suddenly during the interview, he dropped one of his strangest remarks: “Eight of the Front members died in the Ryongchon explosion” (“용천역 폭발사고 때 맹원 8명이 죽었다”).
The same interview listed the following people as the Front’s founders: Chang Hak-pong (previously a vice-president of a KPA academy), Pak Yong-bin (high-ranking Party official), Sim Su-chol (vice-chairman of the KPA Cadre Bureau), Chong Sang-jin (vice-minister of culture) and Lee Chun-baek (KPA general).
The problem is that being so deeply involved in anti-regime activities does not correspond well with what is known about some of these people. Chang Hak-pong was against conflict with North Korea, getting angry with former KPA general Kang Sang-ho for the interview he gave to the Soviet press in 1991. Pak Yong-bin became an outright pro-North Korean figure in his old age.
Was it an assassination attempt? Despite the Roh government of South Korea quickly announcing that it was not, there are good reasons to believe it was.
To think that one of them just happened to coincide with the day of Kim Jong Il passing the station on his train, one of the very few days when his location could have actually be predicted, and just happened to be of enough scale to obliterate his train – seems too unlikely to actually be true.
Moreover, reportedly, Kim Jong Il himself believed this to be an assassination attempt and that a cell phone was used as a trigger. While theoretically this could be credited to the regime’s paranoia, it should be remembered that these people were probably the most informed about what was going on in Ryongchon.
The reasoning against the assassination attempt the South Korean government used was that there was a several hours’ gap between the passing of the train and the explosion. However, this is not enough to rule out the assassination hypothesis: Kim Jong Il’s train looks like this, and an assassin could have confused an ordinary train with it.
Kim Jong Il himself believed this to be an assassination attempt
Assuming it was indeed an attempt to get rid of Kim Jong Il, it resulted in no good. The idea of using a weapon of mass destruction – if a handmade one – to kill a dictator is controversial, to say the least. By comparison, previous known rebellion attempts in North Korea were designed to minimize potential casualties among common people.
Moreover, it did not reach its goal. Kim survived, while many innocent people did not, and it was this explosion which convinced Kim that the reforms he had started to promote in earlier years could end with him being killed.
Soon after the Ryongchon incident, the DPRK outlawed cell phones. In the world of politics, it resulted in the downfall of reform-minded politicians like Hong Song Nam and Pak Pong Ju and the rise of people like Pak Nam Gi – proponents of crackdowns on markets, a totally planned economy, and the Public Distribution System.
Putting an ideology-driven hardliner in charge of the economy ended predictably: after the spectacular failure of the currency reform in 2009, Pak Nam Gi was executed and reformists were put back in charge.
However, these five years of anti-market crackdowns, which made so many North Koreans poorer and led to more innocents being killed, could have been avoided – if not for this ill-planned attack in 2004.
Policy-wise, this story suggests one possible scenario for how the current reformist line in the economy may end. Should Kim Jong Un also suffer a failed attempt on his life, he may follow in his father’s footsteps – and proceed with counter reforms, until the economy is ruined again.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: David Hill, ECHO
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