Korea crash stirs South's hearts, hopes

The images of the burned faces of semiconscious children have tugged at South Koreans' deepest sensitivities, as well as their purse strings, following the North Korean train explosion that killed at least 169 people and injured more than 1,300 others.

The government has led the emotional response, promising $1 million in medical aid and $25 million in supplies and equipment to help rebuild Ryongchon, a city of well above 100,000 people near North Korea's border with China. Conservative business groups, left-leaning nongovernmental organizations, and private citizens have all joined in, drawn by the scenes of devastation.

"That's why people are giving so much to the North," says Jang Yoon Mi, a schoolteacher and mother. "But it's unfortunate that the things we give don't reach the people who need it most at the site."

The South Korean outpouring for the Ryongchon victims reveals a deep-seated yearning for inter-Korean reconciliation, tempered by fears that the North Korean regime's true face was on display in its refusal to accept teams of doctors or, for a week, to permit South Korea to send emergency supplies by land.

The sense persists, though, that South Koreans are somehow turning the tragedy into a milestone on the long road to viable relations between the two Koreas.

"We are trying to give all the assistance North Korea demanded," says Choi Jin Wook, a specialist at the Korea Institute of National Unification. "We try to take advantage of the crisis for the sake of full-fledged reconciliation. We try to influence more North Korean people, to have an impact on the ordinary people of North Korea, to demonstrate our sincere cooperation."

In a sign that the compassion may be winning over Pyongyang, the North finally assented to receiving much of the material by road beginning Friday. The shipment coincides with the third dayof ministerial-level talks among North and South Korean officials in Pyongyang.

But at the talks North Korea demanded that South Korea not participate in joint military exercises with the US forces as a prerequisite for North-South military talks. Despite the government's eagerness for reconciliation, South Korean foreign minister Ban Ki Moon ruled out the demand. "As long as there exists a danger of military conflict on the Korean peninsula, the South Korea-US military drills cannot but continue," he said.

The question is how serious are the North Koreans about such hard-line displays - and how willing are top North Korean bureaucrats to work around policy positions in future talks.

Foreign aid workers who visited the hospital at Sinuiju, on the Yalu River opposite the Chinese city of Dandong, report a willingness to cooperate that may suggest divisions within the bureaucracy, if not at the higher levels of power.

"The response of the North Korean government is seen by many as very positive," says Anthony Banbury, director for Asia for the World Food Program, in Seoul after overseeing the delivery of supplies and medicine at the hospital. "They were very supportive. The response does mark a shift from what would have happened a few years ago."

After years of disappointments in negotiations with North Korea, however, many analysts here prefer to reserve judgment.

"In the short term, this event will accelerate inter-Korean dialogue as well as contribute to a more active response with respect to economic cooperation," says Kim Song Han, professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security. "North Korea will be more and more exposed to the demands of the international community, which is demanding more for human rights."

Mr. Kim believes North Korea "has mixed feelings about the international response" while South Koreans "after the shock dies down will think about the regime and the relationship of the regime to the North Korean people."

A sign of North Korea's own insecurity was the failure of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, to make a personal tour of the site of the explosion, which occurred some time after his train passed over the same tracks on a return trip from Beijing.

Questions remain, says professor Kim, about whether Kim Jong Il's train passed along the tracks 30 minutes before the accident, or as long as eight hours before, as reported by the North Korean media. A dangling wire was blamed by North Korean officials for sparking the explosion.

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