Shortly after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un left Pyongyang to attend the second US-North Korea summit in Hanoi, a major fire broke out that put the country’s military command into a state of emergency.
“At 2 am on February 24, a fire broke out on the Toksan Air Force Base runway in Hamhung, South Hamgyong Province,” a North Korean source in South Hamgyong Province told Daily NK by phone on March 21. “A Supreme Command order, No. 6XXX, was dispatched to the General Staff Department of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) at around 2:10 am.”
North Korea’s Supreme Command only operates during times of war, while the KPA’s General Staff Department’s Operations Department (2nd Department) functions as the “Supreme Command Department” in charge of carrying out orders from the Supreme Commander.
The General Staff Department’s Sixth Department manages air force operations. The Supreme Command’s order appears to have been handed down to this department.
“The Air Force Command’s urgent order ensured that the status of the runway was the first thing checked at the site,” said the source. “The Air Force Command ordered that aircraft should be moved temporarily to Kaechon Airport in North Pyongan Province if the runway was in bad condition.”
High-level military commanders were quickly dispatched to the site after an initial response to the incident, according to a separate source in South Hamgyong Province.
“High-level officers from the Toksan Air Command immediately headed to the site of the fire to determine what had happened,” he said. “High-level officers from the Air Force Command located in Pyongyang’s Junghwa-gun together with officers from the General Staff Department’s Operations Department and Training Department, among others, took two air force helicopters to the site.”
It is extremely unusual for a fire occurring at a high-level military base runway to be reported to higher authorities in under 10 minutes, for a response to be handed down so quickly, and for high-level commanders in Pyongyang to take helicopters to the site of such an incident. The turn of events suggests that the North Korean military was already at a very high state of alert at the time and that commanders were ready to act within a moment’s notice of such incidents.
North Korea has, in fact, maintained a high state of alert since the beginning of February by declaring a “special week for security” and restricting the movements of residents. Daily NK reported previously that the North Korean authorities began the special week for security one month instead of the usual two weeks prior to the Supreme People’s Assembly elections.
It was suggested that the regime was attempting to prevent unexpected events from occurring in advance of Kim Jong Il’s birthday on February 16 and the US-North Korea summit.
The fact that the incident occurred just seven hours after Kim had left Pyongyang for Hanoi likely motivated military commanders to act quickly to avoid being blamed for the incident.
Both sources reported that the officer in charge of aircraft maintenance at the airport started the fire and that given that it turned into a huge incident and it happened when Kim was out of the country means that he will likely face severe punishment.
“A Supreme Command Military Regulations Inspection Team has been deployed to the scene to investigate what happened given that the fire broke out when Kim was out of the country,” said the initial source, noting that it is yet “unclear what other measures will be taken by the authorities.”