Beijing (AFP) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un expressed his “bitter sorrow” after dozens of Chinese tourists were killed when a bus they were travelling in plunged off a bridge.
Thirty-two Chinese tourists and four North Koreans perished in the accident south of the capital Pyongyang Sunday night, Chinese officials and state media said. Two other Chinese nationals were injured.
In a rare admission of negative news from North Korea’s tightly-controlled propaganda network, the state-run KCNA news agency ran a report early Tuesday saying Kim met personally with the Chinese ambassador in Pyongyang and later visited crash survivors in hospital.
“He (Kim) said that the unexpected accident brought bitter sorrow to his heart and that he couldn’t control his grief at the thought of the bereaved families who lost their blood relatives,” KCNA reported.
The agency quoted the North Korean leader as saying his people “take the tragic accident as their own misfortune”.
Xinhua news agency reported that the bus had fallen from a bridge in North Hwanghae province.
China’s state broadcaster showed images of a large overturned vehicle, with light rain falling on rescue vehicles at night and doctors attending to a patient.
KCNA said the crash was “an unexpected traffic accident that claimed heavy casualties among Chinese tourists”. It gave no breakdown on the numbers killed or injured.
The vast majority of foreign tourists to North Korea are Chinese, with the Cold War-era allies sharing a long land border and operating flights between the two countries.
Western visitors to the North once averaged around 5,000 a year, but numbers have been hit recently by a US travel ban –- Americans accounted for around 20 percent of the market –- and official warnings from other countries.
Tens of thousands of Chinese tourists are believed to visit the North every year, with many crossing via train through the Chinese border city of Dandong.
For some, North Korea provides a window into what Communist China may have looked like decades ago.
Chinese tourism to the North has continued even though Beijing has enforced a slew of United Nations sanctions over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme.
Despite those sanctions, it remains North Korea’s sole ally, providing an important economic and political buffer against international opprobrium.
– ‘All necessary means’ –
President Xi Jinping urged China’s foreign ministry and embassy in North Korea to take “all necessary means” to handle the accident, and called for an “all-out” effort to help the injured and deal with the deceased, according to Xinhua.
North Hwanghae province lies south of Pyongyang and stretches to the border with South Korea. It includes the city of Kaesong, an ancient Korean capital with historical sites.
More recently, the area hosted a manufacturing complex operated with the South.
The tour group was travelling by bus from Kaesong to Pyongyang when the accident happened, according to the independent Seoul-based website NK News, which cited an unnamed source.
North Korean roads are largely poor and potholed, and in many areas they are dirt rather than tarmac. Vehicles are sometimes forced to ford rivers or take detours when bridges are unpassable.
But the route from Pyongyang to Kaesong, where the accident reportedly happened, is one of the best in the country.
It runs north-south from the Chinese border to the Demilitarized Zone on the border with South Korea but has little traffic, like all North Korean highways.
Tank traps have been installed along the road in many locations –- sets of high concrete columns on either side of the road that can easily be blown up to create an obstruction for invading armoured vehicles.