Aid pours in to nervous North Korea

Officials are unsure how to engage with the world, but there are signs of change in this most secretive nation
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The Independent Online

About 40 diplomats, including the British ambassador, and foreign aid officials visited the scene of Thursday's train disaster in Ryongchon yesterday. They found widespread destruction, but the dead and injured had been removed from the scene.

About 40 diplomats, including the British ambassador, and foreign aid officials visited the scene of Thursday's train disaster in Ryongchon yesterday. They found widespread destruction, but the dead and injured had been removed from the scene.

North Korean officials said about 350 injured were hospitalised in Sinuiju. Aid workers didn't go there on Saturday because it is a special economic zone and North Korean officials hadn't prepared the required entry permits.

The exclusion was a sign that, in spire of its urgent need, North Korea is still uncertain of how to engage with even the generous side of the rest of the world. There were other indications of nervousness, too. But the diplomats and aid officials were promised access within days. Those visiting the site on Saturday were not allowed to carry mobile communications, said Brendan McDonald, head of the UN office for co-ordination in the country's capital, Pyongyang.

China and South Korea have sent aid, Russia's is being dispatched, and offers have come from the UK, Australia, Germany and the US. But the extent of the disaster - never mind what help is needed - is still unclear. The Red Cross puts the death toll at 154, with more than 1,000 injured, but a British Foreign Office spokesman said that North Korean officials told Britain's ambassador that "several hundred people were thought to have died and several thousand were injured".

Despite this, South Korea's Red Cross chief, Lee Yoon-gu, said the North had still not responded to its offer to send doctors. He said he believed "there could be many burn victims". On Saturday, an aid convoy headed to the site carrying antibiotics, bandages, painkillers and other supplies - all scarce in the impoverished country, according to John Sparrow, a Red Cross spokesman in Beijing. "We are fearful that they could be overwhelmed by the large numbers of injured," he said.

A German doctor, Norbert Vollertsen, who worked in hospitals in North Korea with the German charity Cap Anamur until his expulsion in December 2000, said yesterday that many of the country's hospitals were in dire straits.

"There's no power, there's no running water, there's no medicine - there's sometimes even no soap," he said. He added that doctors were doing grafts for burn victims "donating their own skin, without any anaesthetic, without any narcotics, without any disinfection - sometimes with a razor blade".

Diplomats and aid groups were also told yesterday that thousands of apartments and houses were destroyed or damaged in the city, which has a reported population of 130,000. They said that many people had been made homeless and would need tents and other shelter.

The one need the North Koreans did quantify was for building materials. Jay Matta, a Red Cross official who visited the blast site, said North Korea had requested 2,000 tons of construction materials to begin rebuilding the town. "The priority at the moment for emergency assistance is rehabilitation of the town itself, which includes reconstruction of damaged structures, supply of construction materials such as cement, fuel and timber, and some food aid," he said.

On Saturday, South Korea said it would send $1m of medicine, food and other aid, plus $200,000 through the World Health Organisation.

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