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(LEAD) N. Korea's Ryongchon blast site reborn with Soviet-era complexes

All Headlines 10:09 November 06, 2009

(ATTN: UPDATES throughout with emailed comments from researcher; ADDS background)
By Sam Kim

SEOUL, Nov. 6 (Yonhap) -- North Korea has built Soviet-style apartment complexes to face-lift its border town of Ryongchon where a 2004 explosion devastated the lives of thousands of people, according to a satellite image compiled by a U.S. researcher.

The April 22 blast in the rural northwestern town near China took place several hours after leader Kim Jong-il passed through its railway station, fueling suspicions that the incident may have been an assassination attempt by his opponents.

The North announced later that highly explosive ammonium-nitrate fertilizer being shunted at the station had hit an electric cable in an accident, triggering an explosion that killed some 160 people and injured 1,300.

The casualties included nearly 80 children at the town's primary school while over 8,000 residents were displaced with thousands of homes razed or damaged by the blast as powerful as 100 1-ton bombs.

"In 2004, much of the town of Ryongchon was tragically destroyed in a large explosion," wrote Curtis Melvin, a George Mason University doctoral student who runs one of the most extensive blogs on the economy and geography of the communist country.

According to the satellite image compiled by Melvin, which was monitored by Yonhap News Agency on Friday, Ryongchon has since been transformed from ashes to a specimen of modernity and orderliness.

"Gone are the traditional homes," Melvin wrote. "They have been replaced by typical Soviet-style apartment blocks."

Melvin said in an emailed interview that the image was compiled from publicly available sources, including Globalsecurity.org and Google Earth.

"This style of architecture makes it easier for the local 'inmin-ban' to keep an eye on the residents. All the residents will have to come and go through the same doors," he said, referring to the North's state-run neighborhood surveillance unit.

Kim In-han, an architecture professor at Seoul's Kyunghee University, agreed that the buildings resembled those found in the now-defunct Soviet Union -- Pyongyang's Cold War-era benefactor.

"The ones in the center appear to be the poshest. They could be for party or government officials," said Kim, who co-chairs the building construction committee of the International Organization for Standardization, or ISO.

"The apartments shown on either side are probably for commoners," he said, adding some buildings in the center could be government offices. "Not a trace of the disaster. Nice comeback."

"These new homes are probably better insulated from the cold and are likely equipped for indoor heating, plumbing, and electricity," Melvin said. "Also, if the residents want to move or 'sell' their house on the black market, they would probably get a better price."

In August this year, Melvin released a satellite photo of a mansion that he said belongs to Kim Jong-il, the 67-year-old dictator denounced worldwide for alleged human rights abuses.

Kim was traveling back from a surprise trip to China when the Ryongchon tragedy, first reported by Yonhap, occurred. In a rare gesture, his regime openly asked for aid and invited international relief groups to the area.

Reports soon followed that Ryongchon was quickly recovering from the blast with assistance pouring in from across the world, including the North's 1950-53 Korean War foe, South Korea.

Melvin, who studies economics, visited North Korea earlier this decade, and has been featured by international media for his efforts to "uncover" the secretive North through satellite images and private photos.


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