Waiting for Yongcheon

At 12:15pm on the 22nd of April, 2004, a huge explosion rocked Yongcheon Station in North Pyongan Province, completely destroying both the station and a swathe of the surrounding town. Kim Jong Il had passed through the station just hours earlier on his way back from a trip to China, leading outside observers to wonder whether the incident, which left thousands of people injured, was actually an attempt on Kim Jong Il’s life.

The public explanation from the authorities was that the incident had been caused by a collision between two freight trains carrying ammonium nitrate fertilizer and oil. No great doubts were ever raised about this explanation domestically; however, rumors that the incident had in fact been an assassination attempt by a woman in her 70s who had collected explosive materials for 20 years continued to circulate.

Defectors from Yongcheon say that locals noted the sudden disappearance of both the local People’s Safety Ministry and National Security Agency heads, and from that assumed it had been an assassination attempt. Naturally, there was no way to confirm this for sure.

No way to know, that is, until Kim Jong Il admitted it in a meeting with Hyundai group Chairwoman Hyun Jeong Eun. And it seems to have been an honest appraisal; neither something Kim would have reason to lie about, not something Hyun would have reason to invent.

So, who were the mysterious assailants who tried to eliminate Kim? It would have been an impossible task for any individual or ordinary people to pull off, despite the circulating rumor. Whoever it was knew of Kim’s movements – nothing in North Korea is shrouded in more secrecy – and they managed to get explosive materials past station security, which would have been at its height. Considering the size of the explosion, they also apparently had ample time to carry out the meticulous preparation required.

Chosun Central News Agency reported the explosion as having the force of 100×1 ton bombs going off simultaneously. The sound and force of the explosion sent many blind or deaf, it said, and laid waste to a 1km radius. When you piece all of these things together, it looks increasingly like an operation carried out by or with help from members of the political elite.

In some circles it is said that anti-Kim groups could never realistically exist in North Korea. At first glance, that is true. It is not easy to coral the bravery to form an anti-Kim group when the ramifications extend to the fate of one’s family.

But impossible and extremely difficult are not the same. We are well aware, thanks to the late former Workers’ Party Secretary Hwang Jang Yeop, of a number of past anti-state actors, including Kim Il Sung University students in 1989, and the No. 6 Corps incident of 1996.

North Korea is now treading a slightly different path to those days. Nowadays it is not obscure underground groups, but the people which are at the root of change. People’s mentalities are changing, from trying to cope as best they can with the restrictions placed upon their lives right up to outright rejecting the system. Some defectors have talked about the unspoken rule that allows low-level public criticism of the government. People fear the government and feign loyalty, but if an anti-state movement ever stirs, it could build more easily than ever before.

The currency exchange measure poked an enormous hole in the people’s already low expectations of their leaders. Those who had given up on politics in the struggle to survive finally realized the nature of their enemy. Outbreaks of graffiti pay testament to this realization. It is impossible to discount the possibility of a second Yongcheon incident at some point in the future
The power of these people to alter North Korea’s path might be limited but it is not non-existent. What is more important though for those who desire a more orderly transformation in the country is to give up their attachment to the third generation succession and begin the democratization of North Korea now.