A train derailed in Chagang Province about a month ago, causing hundreds of deaths and injuries, Daily NK has learned. The accident is being treated very seriously given that more than half the dead and injured were military officers and soldiers.

According to a Daily NK source in Chagang Province on Monday, about 600 people were killed or wounded when the train derailed between Pusong and Hoichon stations in Chagang Province on Nov. 15.

The part of the train carrying liaison officers and communication troops suffered terrible losses. In fact, about 140 military personnel were killed while another 230 were injured in the accident, more than half of the total casualties. 

“There were terrible losses in Car No. 5, which was carrying liaison officers dispatched from above to convey training orders, communication troops who carry military mail every day, and personnel returning to their units prior to the start of winter training in December,” said the source. “The fatalities included the commander of the technical department of Chagang Province’s district command [a 56-year-old senior colonel] and the head of the political department of Lee Jae Sun Military Academy [a 55-year-old colonel].”

With many officers and soldiers being killed or injured while on official business, the authorities reportedly consider the derailment “a national matter.”

Chagang Province’s party committee called the accident a “grave matter that could have undermined the security of our revolutionary leadership had [North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s] train been passing at the time.” It has reportedly mobilized as many military personnel and civilians as possible to fix the train track and clear the accident site, efforts that are apparently nearing completion.

“Based on the investigation, the train derailed because several spikes were missing from the rails in the section of track managed by Pusong Station,” said the source. “With the accident being designated a national incident, those responsible for it – the stationmaster of Pusong Station, and railway patrol personnel and maintenance personnel of the section of track in question – have been detained by the Chagang Province branch of the Ministry of State Security.”

chagang food shortages signs
A train can be seen travelling in an area of Chagang Province near the Sino-North Korean border. / Image: Daily NK

Ordinarily, the individuals would have been sent to the Ministry of State Security headquarters in Pyongyang for questioning. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, they are being detained locally and are being investigated by ministry officials dispatched from Pyongyang.

The results of the investigation may emerge closer to the end of the year. The source told Daily NK that some North Koreans believe the authorities will go relatively light on the station master and the others to “promote the grace and magnanimity of the Party and its benevolent policy ahead of the Eighth Party Congress.”

Meanwhile, the Ministry of State Security is reportedly claiming the accident was the work of spies employed by South Korea’s National Intelligence Agency. 

The source said that during North Korea’s so-called Arduous March of the 1990s, it was often said that South Korean intelligence “would give people thousands of dollars if they removed even a single rail spike.” The source said some North Koreans even believe what the ministry is saying: They may believe that with the nation suffering because of COVID-19, the lack of rations, and people stuck at home because of lockdowns, “there could be people removing spikes and handing them to South Korean intelligence.” 

Other North Koreans are reportedly refuting the ministry’s claims, arguing that it is unlikely anyone would go around taking railway spikes. They are placing blame on railway authorities for failing to check whether any spikes were missing. 

There are also reportedly wild rumors among locals that it was “no accident that there was a sudden accident on a stretch of track regularly used by trains going from Pyongyang to Manpo” and that “it could be the work of internal [reactionaries].” 

“People also say it’s possible the patrol guarding the railway removed the spikes out of spite since they have nothing at all to eat, they have a long stretch to track to watch, it’s cold, there’s nobody who wants to do what they do, and even if they try to quit, [the authorities] won’t let them go,” the source said. 

Pusong Station – the station involved in the accident – is located between Hyangsan Station in North Pyongan Province and Hoichon Station in Chagang Province. Given that North Korea’s railway network is mostly single-tracked, it is reportedly a “technical way station” where trains can change tracks and wait while others pass by. 

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Ha Yoon Ah is Daily NK's editor-in-chief. Please direct any questions about her articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.